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Battle Of The Media Giants In Orlando

Written by Ryan

1st April 2019

artist rendering of Super Nintendo Level

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A fierce battle has been taking place in Orlando between two giants of the media world. Behind all the smiles and thrills a battle has been taking place to get our attention and keep us interested and coming back for more.

Ever since Universal Studios opened in 1990, Disney World has had competition, and the theme park going public have had a choice. Universal have put the troubles of the park’s early days behind it. With a certain boy wizard, Universal Orlando has become a go to destination in their own right instead of a nice aside while visiting Disney.

The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter has been very good to Universal. Visitor numbers are up as is customer spending. Wands and butterbeer are flying off the shelves. Disney hasn’t been taking this lightly. Avatar – World Of Pandora opened at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2017 to rave reviews. The battle really gets going this year when a new attraction, the most immersive roller coaster ever created, opens at Universal’s Islands Of Adventure on 13th June. Disney meanwhile opens the long-awaited Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge on 29th August. This is the first time that two huge draws are opening within weeks of each other.

A Shift In Theme Parks Of The Future

This is just the start. What the Wizarding World and Galaxy’s Edge show us, and the theme park operators, is that we are desperate to be transported into the worlds we have only previously seen on the big screen. Immersion is big business and we can expect to see a shift as theme parks catch up with our desire to visit these fantastic worlds we have only ever seen on screen. Speaking of fantastic worlds, Universal may have finally confirmed the name for their long-in-development 3rd main gate in Orlando. It is going to be called Universal’s Fantastic Worlds. For the first time (for a Universal park) it will have a hub and spoke design at its core allowing visitors to enter a world of their choosing from a vast central hub.

bioreconstruct overlay image of new access roads over the site as viewed from a helicopter
This image from Bioreconstruct overlays the new access roads over an aerial view of the site which has been having ground work done for nearly a year with another year to go before things can potentially start going vertical.

The new park is going to be 541.5 acres but how is Universal which is already at capacity on its original land plot totalling 541 acres going to bring such ambition to life? The answer is money and lots of it. Over the past couple of years, Universal has been buying small unconnected packets of land. They now hold ownership of around 1000 acres near the Convention Centre, 5 minutes south of their current resort offering. It is the biggest tract of land yet to still be developed along the International Drive corridor but it won’t be for long. Universal have been moving earth around in readiness for a year with one more year to go before things can start to go vertical.

New Infrastructure To Support Big Plans

Artists concept drawing of the new Universal Endless Summer Resort when fully open in 2020. Surfside Inn and Suites on the former Wet ‘N’ Wild waterpark will open later this year adding 750 rooms. Dockside in, built on the former car park opens in 2020. Image©Universal

With a 4rd main gate, Universal’s largest theme park development ever, they can truly start to take on Disney but they first need infrastructure in place ready. That starts with hotels. They have 2 new affordable hotels totalling 4000 rooms opening up over the next two years. The first, Surfside Inn & Suites opens later this year on the former Wet ‘N’ Wild waterpark site which Universal acquired but closed 2 years ago when Volcano Bay opened. A sister hotel, Dockside Inn & Suites opens in 2020 over the road from Surfside Inn, on the area that was formerly the Wet ‘N’ Wild car park. Together they will make up Universal’s Endless Summer Resort.

We’re not quite on a Disney scale yet but they are going in that direction very quickly under Comcast, their current parent company. With the opening of Universal’s Endless Summer Resort, Universal will have around 9000 hotel rooms in 8 resort hotels compared to Disney’s 30,000 spread over 36 hotels and various price bands. Endless Summer Resort marks Universal’s first venture into the ‘value’ hotel market although they will likely still charge quite a premium over nearby hotels on International Drive.

Filling The New Park

Nearly 4 years ago Universal announced a collaboration with Nintendo to bring Nintendo’s rich list of gaming favourite characters to life. Super Nintendo World was hotly anticipated to replace the ageing Kids Zone At Universal Studios sometime in 2016/2017, it never materialised. Super Nintendo World is now anticipated to open as an entirely new land within the new Theme Park. The other lands rumoured to be joining it currently are Jurassic World, Universal’s Monsters, Fantastic Beasts and Dreamworks. That really is speculation at the moment though because Universal Studios has such a rich catalogue of Intellectual Property to draw from.

artist rendering of Super Nintendo Level
Artist concept of the multi-levelled Super Nintendo World currently being built in Japan. A larger Super Nintendo World is rumoured to be coming to Orlando

Proof Of A New Park Finally Uncovered

Permits filed with Orange County earlier this year show a huge parking lot and multiple access roads going into the new speculated site of the theme park. Thanks to a photo posted to Twitter by Alicia Stella of the Orlando Parkstop blog in December from an Employee town hall meeting we know the possible name of the park, although without Universal confirming it yet it is still just speculation.

Universal filed this image showing access roads over a satellite image of the new land they have acquired
Image filed by Universal Orlando with Orange County shows a large parking lot and large 500+acre plot with access roads. This is suspected to be the site of Fantastic Worlds.The image is overlayed on top of a satellite image of the site. Image©Universal

“This brand new theme park, titled Universal’s Fantastic Worlds, will turn the Universal Orlando Resort from a two-, or three-day travel destination to a week-long vacation destination. The Fantastic Worlds name signifies the many beloved ‘Worlds’ from all types of media that our guests want to step into, experience and explore, in a fully immersive way – from rides, to restaurants, shows, shops, and even restrooms.”

Quote from Comcast NBC Universal handout

It’s clear they are taking immersion to another level throughout this entire park which will also be built with expansion in mind. Current permits put the park at 541.5 acres leaving plenty of room for future expansion to keep the park relevant. A hub and spoke design would also lend itself well to being able to swap out worlds as pop culture changes and things fall out of fashion. They are trying to future proof the park before it is even built which is a very smart move.

What’s Disney Doing?

Rumours about a new Disney park are almost continuous but there is nothing yet confirming that one is even in the planning stages. If Universal’s Fantastic World’s does come to life it will put pressure on Disney to open a 5th main gate.

Disneyworld has a major milestone coming up on October 1st 2021 when it turns 50. A slew of upgrades and new additions are going into the Magic Kingdom which will finally get Shanghai Disneyland’s popular Tron Lightcycle rollercoaster and rumours of upgrades to several classic rides such as Big Thunder Mountain. Peter Pans Flight meanwhile already has an extended closure planned in, prior to the anniversary. Tomorrowland Speedway is already getting a slight redesign thanks to Tron.

EPCOT is getting huge investment in the form of the largest indoor rollercoaster in the world, Guardians Of The Galaxy. A new Ratatouille dark ride is coming to the France Pavilion and the entrance is getting redesigned while Spaceship Earth is getting a complete makeover.

torn light cycle power run concept art
The new Tron attraction will be placed behind Space Mountain outside the berm than circles the park. Tomorrowland speedway will receive a new layout to accommodate access. Image©Disney

Whatever the time scale, and we are talking years away at this point, there is one clear winner and that is us. Theme parks are sinking vast sums of money at impossibly complex rides and immersive lands to captivate us. Its reported that Super Nintendo World currently under construction in Japan is costing US$544million. The original Wizarding World Of Harry Potter -Hogsmead cost a reported US$260million in 2010. 2014 saw the opening of Wizarding World Of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley whose build budget was an estimated US$450million. Official costs for Avatar – World Of Pandora that opened in 2017 at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are not released but its estimated to be north of US$750-US$800million.

With this amount of capital expenditure going into new lands the theme parks of today could be endangered. The days of theming starting at the ride queue line and ending in a gift shop at the exit look to be numbered. Theming will extend everywhere, even to the bathrooms.

With Universal and Disney trying to one-up each other, the bar is getting raised very high indeed. Universal’s Fantastic Worlds is shaping up to be a true successor to Islands Of Adventure which to this day is still winning awards 20 years after it opened. Universal’s Fantastic Worlds could usher in a new era in theme park design and that is something we should all be very excited about. Unfortunately we are going to have to wait another 4 or 5 years minimum for Fantastic Worlds to become a reality.

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