Universal Parks Announces Expansions in Texas and Vegas

January 11, 2023, 12:53 PM · Universal Parks & Resorts is coming to Texas.

Universal announced this morning that it will develop a new concept for a smaller, child-focused theme park on 97 acres in Frisco, just north of Dallas.

"We are excited about the opportunity to partner with the city of Frisco... as we work to bring this innovative, new concept to life designed specifically for a younger generation of Universal fans," said Page Thompson, President, New Ventures, Universal Parks & Resorts. "We think North Texas is the perfect place to launch this unique park for families given its growing popularity within this part of the country."

Universal park in Texas
Concept art courtesy Universal Parks & Resorts

The as-yet-unnamed park will focus on families with small children and "will be full of family-friendly attractions, interactive and playful shows, character meet and greets, unique merchandise and fun food and beverage venues," according to Universal's press release. The park development will include a hotel and room for expansion within the 97-acre site, which is located east of the Dallas North Tollway and north of Panther Creek Parkway.

In addition, Universal will partner Area15 in Las Vegas to develop a year-round, horror-focused attraction in a 20-acre expansion of that entertainment district. The 110,000-square-foot attraction will be the anchor tenant of the expansion for Area 51, which perhaps is best known as the home to Meow Wolf's Omega Mart.

"With a variety of unique, immersive, fantastic horror-centric experiences that surround high energy food and beverage spaces by day turned haunting bars and eateries by night, the new concept marks the first time Universal has created a permanent horror experience beyond its theme parks," Universal said in its press release.

Universal Vegas
Are those Jack and Chance down there?

"AREA15 curates a constellation of best-in-class experiences. Universal's never-been-done-before concept will be a perfect fit because our guests know they can expect fresh, exciting entertainment at AREA15," Area15 CEO Winston Fisher said. "We are enormously gratified to have an extraordinary company like Universal as our partner as we embark on the next phase of growth for AREA15."

Details on both projects, including timelines for completion, will be announced later, Universal said. But looking at the concept art for the Texas project, I see references to Shrek, Trolls, and Jurassic World as potential IP for inclusion.

Although regional-based entertainment is a new entertainment concept for Universal, it is not a new concept within the industry. Decades ago, before Michael Eisner and Frank Wells came in and revitalized The Walt Disney Company in the 1980s, a cash-strapped Disney developed plans for smaller, regionally-focused theme parks, called publicly "Mini Magic Kingdoms," around the United States. (One of those was pitched for what is now the Indianapolis Zoo site at White River State Park in what was then my home of Indianapolis.) Eisner scuttled the plans when he came on board, opting for the bigger vision of what is now the Disneyland Paris Resort.

With construction underway for Epic Universe at the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida, Universal and its owner Comcast clearly can afford to go big. So its move into regional entertainment represents an attempt to expand its market rather than downsize it.

But is the market ready for a smaller, more focused Universal Studios theme park? Or has the public so associated the Universal brand with the parks that they can find in Orlando and Hollywood that whatever Universal opens in suburban Dallas will suffer in comparison?

There's much for theme park fans to consider here as Universal proceeds with this new direction for its theme park business.

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Replies (27)

January 11, 2023 at 1:05 PM

Man this came out of left field! Obviously more Universal is a win-win for everyone and living in Texas, albeit the Western tip of the state, I'm excited to have a Universal presence here.

But, I do agree big time with how Robert ends his piece here. People associate Universal with theme parks you travel far away from to visit. This smaller scale park is not that. They have to be careful how they name this park. If they name it Universal Dallas or anything with the name "Universal" I think they're setting themselves up for some confusion and bad feels.

Horror Nights are amazing and a year-round Vegas deal sounds good. I wonder how that would affect Hollywood's crowd for their seasonal event? Nevertheless, this is a win.

Looking forward to following the process of these new Universal ventures.

January 11, 2023 at 1:14 PM

This is a really cool concept that I hope is fleshed out by Universal as time goes on. The family theme park market is incredibly lucrative, and compared to the other major competitors (Legoland and Sesame Place), Universal definitely has the advantage when it comes to IP. By looking at the concept art, I am guessing the lands will be themed to (from left to right) Madagascar, Jurassic World, Shrek, Trolls, and a Minion attraction.

January 11, 2023 at 1:19 PM

A lot of blue sky announcements coming from Disney and Universal today. Seems like they are trying to one up each other. Of course, if these announcements don’t come to fruition, then they serve no purpose to us consumers.

January 11, 2023 at 2:14 PM

My guess is this will be the first ever DreamWorks branded park by Universal. The clouds motif and blurred out logo at the park’s entrance shown in the concept art are a dead giveaway. As for the inclusion of Jurassic Park/World to the park, it’s apart of DreamWorks by way of Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous on Netflix. Expansion plots will most likely be held for Kung Fu Panda, The Croods, Puss in Boots and possibly Boss Baby.
HOORAY FOR UNIVERSAL AND TEXAS!
Will there be two new Universal parks opening in 2025?

January 11, 2023 at 1:55 PM

I think the success of Sesame Place and Sea World's expansion/enhancement of that IP in their existing parks, as well as Peppa Pig Park (and Lego Discovery Centers to a lesser degree) represent a template for Universal to leverage their owned IP on a smaller scale.

I worry that these smaller parks have a really limited audience and operate on razor thin margins with cloned attractions. They also dilute the audience for their "destination" resorts in Florida and California. Universal has been spending a lot of money to expand USH and UO, and added a massive number of additional hotel rooms in Florida to capitalize on that expansion. If families can experience similar attractions and interact with the same IPs found at the destination resorts, why would they plan that big trip to Florida or California (or at a minimum why would they go as frequently)?

I'm interested to hear more about what Universal is thinking here, but agree that the Frisco/Dallas/Ft. Worth region is probably an excellent spot to test this "mini-park" concept.

January 11, 2023 at 2:19 PM

@Russell
When I first looked at the concept art, I was confused why there were no Minions because that's Universal's most popular children's IP. I think that is on purpose. This park seems to be exclusively themed to Dreamworks, which is a property that is sorely underrepresented in the US parks. I think the idea is for people to get a taste of that Universal quality, and want to spend more to see the other non-Dreamworks IPs at their flagship parks. I'm not sure if that will work, but we will have to wait and see if it does.

January 11, 2023 at 2:19 PM

I don’t think there is crossover between Legoland and the Universal Parks. Universal can now get the families with kids too young (under six) for Orlando and Hollywood parks

January 11, 2023 at 5:36 PM

What I find VERY INTERESTING is the Comcast partnership with Area 15. We visited the Las Vegas attraction last September. I rate it a B-Minus experience that has a lot of dead space but a ton of potential. Area 15 is basically (on a much smaller scale) the same business model as a "kinda, sorta" attraction/mall -- where the property owner has their own retail, food and pay-to-play attractions as well as tenants renting space.

Stick with me.

Area 15 is owned by a real estate developer named Fisher Brothers. Their website shows that the largest part of their business is in residential development. Area 15 sticks out as an odd model in Fisher Brothers' stable of projects.

So where is the next Area 15 gonna be built? Right along I-4 in Orlando. About four or five miles away from the UEU construction site. For the locals frequenting TPI, if you are travelling east on I-4 from WDW and you pass 535 and the Premium Outlet, on the south side of the highway (to your right) in the middle of an open field, there is a 25-foot tall robot holding a flag that marks the location of the new attraction. Contractors are already bidding the work.

Is it that much of a stretch to believe that Comcast buys Area 15 -- giving Universal a footprint in Vegas and expanding its Central Florida investment?

I think, there's something happening here.

January 11, 2023 at 7:17 PM

I've mentioned before that a third Disney resort will likely never happen in the US because it would have limited appeal and would likely cannibalize from Disneyland and Walt Disney World. However, as long as these parks are not branded as Universal Studios (blank), I don't think it will be as much of an issue provided they're regionally distant from the existing parks. Other than UOR (which in part piggybacks off WDW traffic), none of Universal's properties are multi-day destinations, and very few visitors are going to plan a trip with the exclusive intent of visiting one. I see this the same way...a day trip or overnight trip for those in Texas and the surrounding parts of the Midwest, and something to be included in a larger Texas trip for people coming from further away.

As for the park itself, I think it's far too early to judge based on the concept art, but if they're going for something family-focused using Dreamworks IPs it seems like a win. It looks like Madagascar, Jurassic World, Kung Fu Panda, Shrek, and Trolls are the anchor IPs shown here, though that could very well change. One thing of note is this looks a lot more like a themed amusement park, where most of the rides are standard models overlaid with customized scenic elements, rather than a full blown theme park that's going to present fully immersive themed areas with spectacular one-of-a-kind attractions, which fits better with the idea of a smaller scale property attracting regional visitors.

January 11, 2023 at 5:15 PM

Strong call. Mark it down: I owe TH dinner if this Comcast/Area15 deal happens.

January 11, 2023 at 5:56 PM

Been talk for a while about a major chain park in TX, but I didn't expect it to be targeted at kids, esp with Universal's business model

Expanding their business model, in an area that hasn't been tapped in that aspect, is a smart move. TX and the DFW area mainly has thrill-seeking offerings so good part on UC

January 11, 2023 at 7:44 PM

@AJ Hummel, I agree…a third Disney resort will probably never happen. Yes, it would most likely “cannibalize” off Disneyland and Disney World. However, I don’t think it wouldn’t happen because of “limited appeal.”

Let’s say, for argument sake, Disney decided to build a new theme park in Texas too. You wouldn’t be interested in visiting, once the park is complete and opens? I know I would at least be interested, and would plan a trip to visit. I know it probably wouldn’t be as big as Disney World is. But…I’m sure people would still at least be interested in visiting. It would still draw appeal. Texas, for example, is a popular tourist destination. While visiting Texas, I’m sure people would visit Disney.

Disney is an international brand. No matter what product they put out, there’s always going to be appeal. Yes, more people would still plan their vacations to Orlando and Anaheim. But, if a third resort were built in Texas, people would have interest…especially those who live in the Midwest, and nearby states.

January 11, 2023 at 8:03 PM

I wouldn't put too much stock into the concept art for what will actually be included. The original sketches for Beijing showed off areas for Shrek, Diagon Alley, and The Mummy, none of which made the final cut. This is just to give people an idea of what to expect.

January 11, 2023 at 11:03 PM

A bit surprising but good ideas and locations. Universal parks that don't "feel Universal" might work out nicely and expand them in markets that could use a bit more in theme park fun.

January 11, 2023 at 11:32 PM

With regards to the "HHN Lite" experience at Vegas, it's going to be interesting if Universal can find the market for year-round horror. They tried the concept twice in Hollywood and it doesn't seem like either one was a big hit. Not to mention the challenges of staffing (especially when they can barely get by for only a couple months a year at the parks).

January 12, 2023 at 2:10 AM

Timbo, I can't automatically say yes to that. If it were a completely original park like Tokyo DisneySea, then I'd absolutely make a point to visit. However, every Disney resort has a castle park as their first gate, and if the third resort in the US were to feature just a castle park, I'm not sure it would be that high on my priority list. If it offered a completely unique slate of attractions that couldn't be experienced at either the Disneyland Resort or Walt Disney World, I'd probably check it out. If it were instead more of a greatest hits park that was mostly clones or similar concepts to attractions already found elsewhere in the US, I probably wouldn't bother unless I happened to find myself in Texas, and even then it still wouldn't be a guarantee.

I think the real question with a third Disney resort would not be if anyone would visit it, but would enough people visit it who wouldn't otherwise visit one of Disney's properties to justify the cost? For what it cost to build Shanghai Disneyland (which is likely at least the expense of a third Disney resort), Disney could add an additional gate in both California and Florida. The money's going to go wherever the best return exists.

January 12, 2023 at 9:15 AM

@James Trexen: If Comcast buys Area 15 from Fisher Brothers, they will likely gut about 60% of the existing attractions, restaurants and retail space (keeping Omega Mart [I hope]) and add new stuff. Regardless, HHN Vegas is not going to be the only draw to the Area 15 destination.

January 12, 2023 at 9:40 AM

We're in the process of planning a trip to England later this spring, and are looking into the various "Dungeon" attractions operated by Merlin. While we haven't personally done any of those attractions before, they appear to be very similar to what Universal is proposing with HHN Vegas with numerous actors and detailed sets that would be operated year-round. If Merlin has been able to staff and maintain their Dungeon (and other similar) attractions (there's even one themed to Shrek) around the world - many of which are total 1-offs - I don't see why Universal couldn't do the same with HHN, particularly in a market like Vegas, which is a magnet for talent and the type of personnel needed to operate a year-round haunted attraction.

I do think TH is onto something here, but wonder if Comcast would really be interested in managing aspects of Area 51 that are beyond entertainment. The Universal Resorts typically outsource much of their non-entertainment aspects (hotels, restaurants, spas, and real estate management), so I think that may be a stumbling block for an outright purchase. Perhaps if Universal finds success with their HHN attraction, they may eventually make a move to gain more control of the property and then sub out the non-entertainment parts that they really don't want to be bothered with.

January 12, 2023 at 12:17 PM

This Texas park is potentially a smart move. At first blush it sounds like a strange choice to limit the appeal to that specific “young family” group only. But my guess is they’re hoping it builds early affinity with the Universal brand with a $$ experience and becomes a “gateway drug” to these families, leading to them selecting $$$$ Universal Hollywood / Orlando vacations over Disney once the kids are older, travel becomes more manageable, and income grows.

January 12, 2023 at 1:30 PM

Any predictions on openings?

Vegas - 2025
Texas - 2027

January 12, 2023 at 2:22 PM

It wouldn't surprise me to see Vegas open in 2024 given the type of installation it appears to be. Texas is interesting because even without knowing the scale of the park, you can assume it will be able to progress at Florida-esque break-neck speeds. 2027 is reasonable, but it wouldn't shock me if it's 2026.

January 12, 2023 at 6:11 PM

i'd like to see the orlando parks offer more for the little kid set. Magic Kingdom has that segment pretty wrapped up but i'm hoping whatever replaces kid zone/barney/curious george has lots more to do for the little ones.

January 13, 2023 at 7:46 AM

Russell, I'd recommend Warwick Castle. Not only can you do a Dungeon experience but it is a fantastic day out especially if you want some English history in a medieval 11th century castle in an idyllic setting.

https://www.warwick-castle.com/

January 13, 2023 at 10:59 AM

For the Record: Minions is not a DreamWorks franchise, it's part of Illumination and Universal likes to keep the branding of its two animation studios separate. A DreamWorks-specific park is unlikely to have any Minions attractions, at most, there might be some Minions merchandise in stores and maybe walk-around characters.

Clock-wise from the entrance the lands seem to be Madagascar, Jurassic Park, Shrek and Trolls, with an empty expansion plot at the back of the park.

January 13, 2023 at 11:50 AM

I'm excited by this though. I think there's a few other markets where this concept could work. A DreamWorks third gate at PortAventura World seems completely obvious to me, and smaller Dreamworks parks could maybe work in other markets. I could see Seattle or San Francisco potentially working and maybe even Chicago if they were willing to build something indoors or only operate seasonally. Probably some of the smaller cities in China like Chengdu or Wuhan could see something like this as well, as could large cities in Southeast Asia like Jakarta or Manila.

January 14, 2023 at 7:39 AM

Well, that is one way to get me to go to Vegas

January 17, 2023 at 3:11 PM

That will really boost Area15's appeal.

Wen you enter the parking lot, there's already the visual sense of a "sci fi / horror" theme...Having Universal creating an attraction takes things to an entirely new level for that place.

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