Sunday, December 13, 2015

Thoughts on Possible Universal Orlando Land Purchase

Image from Google Maps. X notes location of Skyplex
In the 1990s, Universal acquired roughly 450 acres of of land north of Universal Boulevard and Destination Parkway for future expansion. Colloquially referred to as "The Lockheed property" and "Sand Lake Road complex", the land was purchased from Lockheed Martin where it was used for missile testing. Because of the testing, the land required environmental clean up before it could be used for its zoned purpose: entertainment and theme parks.

Universal in 1998 launched their infamous Universal Studios Escape rebranding, which caused brand confusion with the two parks and CityWalk. Additionally Universal changed owners more than a game of musical chairs, suffered through the tourism slump after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a recession, and a lack of direction for the resort which lead to a weak resort with declining attendance, supported by convention space. The resort was hurting, and to make the resort appear more appetizing for Blackstone Group and new owners, the land was sold off.

On December 1st, 2015 during the Skyplex Orange County Commissioners meeting for approval of the project, news leaked on (behind paywall) that Universal has an option on the contract for land purchase.  Additional confirmation was provided by the county commissioners. This land, in addition to the Wet'n'Wild property (which is closing December 2016) could open up a massive, unprecedented expansion for Universal Orlando Resort, and the biggest theme park additions in Orlando since the 1990s.

The land, again, is rumored for purchase by the Universal Orlando Resort. Until UOR announces the land deeds are in their hands, nothing is final. But the vibes coming out of UOR seem to indicate this is nearly a done deal and Universal Creative has already started planning for the new land. So lets throw some caution to the wind and speculate some.

First, the land is isolated from the main resort property, approximately 3 1/2 miles via road from the Universal parking garages. This poses a massive issue with transporting guests between the three plots of land effectively. Buses would be the easiest method, with new stops at all the resorts, but would cause issues at the main parking garage and with the notorious I-Drive traffic. Most wish for a new monorail system, both because of the quick and sleek monorails bypass all I-Drive traffic, and also because it sort of snubs the conventional logic on why WDW hasn't expanded their monorail system. But monorails would require construction over existing land and highways that Universal doesn't own the rights to.

With that in mind, some have suggested Universal would not use the land for theme parks. Instead,  non-guest facing facilities could be moved away from the theme parks, opening up more land for attractions and guest areas at USF and IOA. I believe this will happen, but Universal doesn't have 450+ acres of back stage areas, maybe a few dozen acres at most, leaving plenty of room for resorts and a theme park. Even more puzzling are suggestions Universal will build unaffiliated, non-UOR branded convention hotels, convention facilities, and a high end residential neighborhood. Conventions have, and continue to play, a large part in the UOR resort (and also WDW), but unaffiliated expansion for a non-core business attached to the resort is grasping at straws.

In my mind, this expansion is for a third park, additional resorts, and a "City Walk South". It's likely hotels will have convention space and advertise the close proximity to the Orange County Convention Center, but that will supplement and sell hotel space, not be the focus. A new parking garage complex will be built and the new CityWalk could split the dual personality of the existing CityWalks. One CityWalk could focus on a broader audience with a relaxed atmosphere while the other offers nightlife and activities for those over 21.

A third theme park has been long rumored to be planned and recent rumors from several sites have suggested Universal Creative are currently working on such a park. But problem is those rumors never lined up with the suggested locations at Wet'n'Wild and another rumored plot of land off of Major Drive, east of the Portofino Resort. The Sand Lake complex offers the proper zoned land a new park. While already zoned, there could still be challenges to the plan due to light pollution, height of additions, sound, and traffic. If those sound familiar, that's because UOR's opposition to Skyplex was based on these worries. It's my belief (without inside information) that part of UOR's plan was to set precedent for when their projects are going forward there will be no legal foot to stand possibly stand on. After all, Universal launched a flyer campaign against the project, but themselves were a no show at the December 1st hearing. 

So what could a third Universal theme park look like? I have suggested on the podcast that Universal could look to create a park based on the relationship between communities and the wild world around them, similar to Tokyo DisneySea and the original ideas for Disney's Animal Kingdom. Sean also point to Tokyo DisneySea as an example, where several separate lands are connected with one connecting theme, which is also physically a body of water. Other on Orlando United have come up with several ideas of their own. One idea that I believe holds no water is a full Nintendo theme park. Universal and Nintendo want a Nintendo experience open at Universal Studios Florida as soon as possible, and while Nintendo is a massive brand, it cannot support a 40,000+ guests per day theme park.

What do you guys think? Will we see more resorts? What about transportation issues? Theme park ideas? Leave your comments below.


  1. I think we will definitely see a third park happen and I think we will see it sooner rather than later. I think part of the new park will share the Sci-Fi City theme that other Universal parks use and I think it's highly possible that Universal is going to win again when we learn of an acquisition of the theme park rights with Lord of the Rings. With the right negotiates in place I think Universal can work with their Creative team to produce something the Tokein family will be more than happy to approve. I think the new park will focus more on story and theming than thrills. Universal has received a lot of flack when it comes to attractions the whole family can enjoy and I think the third park is going to try to fill that need and possibly be a challenge to the Magic Kingdom. More and more production companies are starting to build theme parks now. There's Disney, Paramount is building a park in London, Lionsgate is building a park in Atlanta, I think Sony is even talking about building a park so Universal is going to have some heavy competition besides Disney with this new park so it is going to have to hit a home run with every one of their attractions.

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