Here’s a trivia question for you: When’s the last time a major, destination theme park opened in the United States? Which are the newest U.S. parks built by the industry’s leaders, Disney and Universal, respectively?
Given the continuous hum around the themed entertainment industry and the post-Wizarding-World wave of projects that have swept across Disney Imagineering and Universal Creative, the industry was moving at a pace never seen before... except in regards to opening theme parks. In fact, 21-year-olds today – young adults old enough to drink! – have never seen a Walt Disney World without four parks or a Universal Studios Florida with a blacktop parking lot for a neighbor.
But of course, all of that is about to change. Supposedly set for opening in 2023, something electric is forming in Central Florida. Orlando is soon to welcome its first new theme park in nearly 25 years – Universal’s Epic Universe. This upcoming third gate for Universal Orlando is meant to be a game-changing project redefining the industry ahead of its next ultra-immersive, tech-incorporated era. In fact, this (admittedly) epically-scaled theme park just may rewrite the rules of the industry. But here’s a hot take for you: it's very possible that Universal Orlando Resort would be stronger without Epic Universe.
Now before you start hurling insults, let me make my case for why the most exciting thing to happen at Universal Orlando in decades may just be a mistake… For the most part, all of our doubts about Epic Universe center around one word: maturity. With a new park about to open in the 2020s, we have to take stock of the maturity of the industry, the maturity of the Orlando area, and the maturity of Universal's existing parks. To that end, we have some real fears (and hopes!) about how Epic Universe will work out...
Universal’s Epic Universe
First things first, it’s important to know what we’re expecting from the landmark new park set to make its way to Orlando. While Universal’s most recent park – 1999’s Islands of Adventure – set a new course for the industry with its intellectual property-focused literary “islands,” it was the park’s addition of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter a decade later that inarguably changed theme parks forever. (It’s also the Wizarding World that allegedly convinced Comcast to keep – and moreso, invest heavily in – the Universal Parks and Resorts division that they’d largely been expected to sell off back when they acquired NBCUniversal in 2013).
As we know, the idea of a wholly immersive land dedicated to a single IP became industry standard, indirectly creating Cars Land, Pandora – The World of Avatar, Diagon Alley, Springfield U.S.A., Avengers Campus, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and every other original-world with in-universe-eats and authentic-merchandise coming into existence around the world.
Now, Epic Universe will fuse the two. With its astrological, art-deco styling presenting "portals" into fantastic worlds, it is, by all accounts, a park composed entirely of Wizarding-World-style lands fueled by Universal’s acquisition of Tier 1 IPs like Nintendo and Dreamworks. We’re talking about totally immersive areas themed to Mario & Luigi, Donkey Kong, Universal’s “Classic Monsters,” Fantastic Beasts (from the Wizarding World), and DreamWorks' How To Train Your Dragon.
While details are intentionally scarce, this pantheon of Universal IPs seemingly beats Disney to the punch again (given many experts expect Disney’s next stateside park – whenever and wherever it emerges – to follow the Islands of Adventure / Epic Universe model of immersive IP lands). But even grander, Epic Universe is meant to transform what we mean by a theme park...
Early reports signal that each of those immersive "worlds" could essentially function as a standalone park (with a single, gated entrance / exit). The central "hub" area between them would be open to the public as a new CityWalk style retail and dining area overlooked by a deluxe hotel. [Why? Brilliantly, this pedestrian-friendly park near the Orange County Convention Center could not only keep its "hub" open late into the night, but could rent out individual "worlds" to conventioneers one-by-one.] To that end, guests will need to pass through turnstiles at the single entrance portal to each land… potentially using facial recognition rather than tickets, RFID, or fingerprints. While this feature (and many others) are still merely rumors at this point, the ambition that’s gone into Epic Universe alone proves Universal’s in it for the long haul.
But there’s more that’s confusing about Universal’s Epic Universe than its redundant name… We have serious doubts that this third gate at Universal Orlando is the best path forward for the resort. We want to take a deep dive into the three troubling levels of maturity that we think might be serious hurdles for the latest and greatest park in Orlando.
Here’s how we’re going to lay out our argument. We're going to progressively "zoom in" by looking at the BIG PICTURE (the maturity in the industry), MEDIUM PICTURE (the maturity of the area), and SMALL PICTURE (maturity in the parks). For each of those, we’ll define what we mean, then present some evidence (some for Epic Universe and some against Epic Universe) to get to the bottom of this radical, revolutionary, and risky new park.
1. BIG PICTURE: Maturity in the industry
CASE STUDY: Amusement parks in America
Let's start with the biggest picture – a "thousand foot" view of the entire amusement park industry – to see how Epic Universe fits in.
We opened by asking you to recall the last Disney or Universal park built in the United States. (The answer? 2001’s Disney California Adventure.) So let’s cast a bigger net… When's the last time a new Six Flags was built? A Cedar Fair park? SeaWorld or Busch Gardens? For pretty much all those cases, the last purpose-built, from-scratch theme parks came online in the ‘70s and ‘80s (after Magic Kingdom proved the formula) and experienced growth spurts and ownership changes in the ‘90s (once the Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios Florida made owning theme parks accessible and budget-friendly).
In fact, even smaller, regional park operators are often viewed as players in a “mature” industry. With limited exceptions (like the new LEGOLAND New York, and the shuttered Six Flags New Orleans), the United States is commonly seen as saturated with major amusement parks… Like a sponge that can't hold another drop of water, it's full. That is, nearly every metropolitan area that can support one, has one. Trust us: if there were some city out there that could reasonably support a destination park, someone would build it. They aren’t, because there’s not.
We seem to have almost exactly the right number of parks to satiate our 328 million person population. (Compared to, say, China's population of 1.4 billion – nearly five times larger than that of the U.S. – explaining why parks are rapidly opening across China, including Disney and Universal sites.) So if the question is, "Can the United States reasonably support another major theme park," the simplest and most straightforward answer is typically, "No." Except...
"Industry" Problem 1: The Orlando exception?
Epic Effect: POSITIVE (+)
All that said, there’s something “magical” about Orlando, isn’t there? Just as Cincinnati can have too many casinos, but Las Vegas can't, somehow, some way, this unassuming area of Central Florida has seemingly limitless capacity for new theme parks. Theme parks aren't just an attraction in Central Florida; theme parks are Central Florida – the backbone of its economy, the source of its tourism, and the reason for its development. Maybe Orlando will hit a ceiling, but it hasn't yet. Orlando already houses seven major theme parks – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and SeaWorld Orlando – with a further four water parks.
So, okay, if any place in the country can support yet another theme park, it’s probably Orlando. But as for what happens when families visiting Orlando now find seven major theme parks waiting for them…? Will they extend their trip, or simply visit fewer parks? And either way, who wins and who loses? Read on as we “zoom in” a bit from our thousand-foot view of the industry and instead focus on the Universal Orlando Resort itself...