Finally conceding one of the theme park industry’s worst kept secrets, Universal Orlando said Thursday it will build a new theme park complex with hotels, shops, restaurants and an entertainment center several miles south of its existing resort, to be called Universal’s Epic Universe.
But the company disappointed park watchers when it didn’t release any information about the park’s attractions, which are widely expected to include the Super Nintendo World that Universal promised fans four years ago.
The official rendering of the park shows several lands, at least one roller coaster, a water ride and buildings that could house indoor attractions, including one dark castle. One section appears to match an earlier leaked rendering of a Nintendo-themed area but with identifying details stripped out.
Universal also didn’t say when Epic Universe would open, but building a park typically takes three to four years after plans are drawn. The land was cleared last year and earth moving has begun. The new park will be the first in Orlando since Universal’s Islands of Adventure opened in 1999.
Epic Universe will be “the most immersive and innovative theme park we have ever created,” said Tom Williams, chairman and CEO of Universal Parks and Resorts, which also has parks in California, Japan and Singapore and is building one in Beijing. A press release said the new park would “take guests on a journey where beloved stories expand into vibrant lands.”
But it did not specify which beloved stories.
Asked about the attractions and a timeline for opening, Williams said, “I’m going to bob and weave my way through that minefield and avoid giving you a direct answer. ... To share the details of what we have in mind with the competition is something that we have no interest in doing.” Then in a jab at Universal’s biggest competitor, he added: “The last I heard, the universe is a little bit bigger than a world.”
Instead, Thursday’s press conference at the Orange County Convention Center, just south of the Epic Universe site, focused on the economic aspects of the new park. Among those in attendance was Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in a statement lauded Universal’s “continued contribution to our state’s economic growth and development.”
Universal Orlando said it currently employs 25,000 people and will hire 14,000 more. The company said the resort pays more than $302 million in annual state and local taxes, and that the number will nearly double when Epic Universe opens. An analysis commissioned by Universal determined construction of the new park will contribute $11.5 billion in direct and indirect benefit to the Florida economy, but the company did not say over what period.
Williams also said during the conference that the starting pay will be $15 an hour.
The park is to be built on part of a 750-acre site Universal owns south of Sand Lake Road and east of Universal Boulevard. The land, which was bought in pieces and includes property that Martin Marietta once used for missile storage before it merged with Lockheed, nearly doubles the acreage that Universal owns in Central Florida.
Universal Orlando Resort already has two theme parks, a water park (which Universal refers to as its third theme park), the CityWalk dining and entertainment center, and seven hotels.
Epic Universe will be more than a theme park. It also will have hotels, a CityWalk-like center and room to grow.
“Our new park represents the single-largest investment Comcast NBCUniversal has made in its theme park business and in Florida overall,” Brian L. Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast Corp. — Universal’s parent company — said in a statement. “It reflects the tremendous excitement we have for the future of our theme park business and for our entire company’s future in Florida.”
It was the land purchases, followed by permit applications, leaked documents and the ground work that alerted neighbors and fans that a theme park was almost certainly in the works. For those who followed this trail of clues, the question no longer was whether Universal would build a new park but what attractions it would include.
Most obvious is one or more Nintendo attractions. In 2015, Universal and Nintendo first announced that they were working together on theme park lands. A year later, they said Nintendo lands would be coming to the Japan park first, then Orlando and Southern California.
As work began on Super Nintendo World in Japan — scheduled to open in 2020 — Universal Orlando sought permits that would allow it to build Nintendo attractions in what is now KidsZone in Universal Studios. That work never began. At that time, Universal was believed to be planning Mario Kart, Yoshi, and Donkey Kong themed rides.
Concept models from 2016 of Universal Orlando’s Super Nintendo World were leaked by Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast on Instagram.
Other likely themes:
▪ “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a guide book written by J.K. Rowling, which comes from the same world of wizards as Harry Potter but is set before his time. The Harry Potter attractions at the two existing Orlando parks have been huge attendance boosters.
▪ DreamWorks Animation brands, which NBCUniversal acquired in 2016. The DreamWorks film “Shrek 4-D” is already at Universal Studios in Orlando, but other DreamWorks brands include How to Train Your Dragon, Trolls, Kung-Fu Panda and Madagascar.
▪ Illumination Entertainment brands. Universal has said it is building a “Secret Life of Pets” ride at Universal Studios Hollywood, to open in 2020. There have also been reports that a Minions mini-land is being built at Universal Studios Beijing.
▪ Universal Classic Monsters, based on early Universal Pictures movies such as “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man” and “The Mummy” (which already has a roller coaster at Universal Studios Orlando).
Universal fans were ecstatic about Universal’s announcement and took to social media to share how happy they were. Some responded in GIFs, and another’s said, “Now that’s E P I C.”
Some fans were not happy that Universal did not release any information on possible attractions. Rae tweeted, “I was expecting something cool like Nintendo land or something this just, nah. What a waste of excitement.”
Universal’s announcement comes less than a month ahead of Disney’s annual D23 Expo, when company executives are expected to announce new attractions coming to its parks, and just ahead of the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The addition of a third theme park — or four if you count its water park, Volcano Bay — will put Universal on better footing to compete with Walt Disney World, but still far from equal footing. Disney’s largest park, Magic Kingdom, had 20.8 million visitors alone last year, more than Universal’s two theme parks combined, which had 20.5 million. Disney’s four Orlando parks together had more than 58 million visitors.
Universal’s biggest gain came in 2010, when it opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure. It has since opened a second Wizarding World at Universal Studios, with the Hogwarts Express connecting the two, and in June opened a new roller coaster, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, replacing the Dragon Challenge coasters. Attendance at the resort has doubled since 2009, the last year when it had no Harry Potter attractions.