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At long last, construction will resume on Universal Orlando’s Epic Universe. The news comes not just as a boon to theme park fans, but a lifeboat for Central Florida. According to the press release, the expansion will create 14,000 new jobs. It’s a promising sign for the future of the themed entertainment industry and hopefully the first announcement of many more post-quarantine projects to come. And not only from the competition.

The Epic Universe build is an all-hands, full-steam effort, but it does beg tantalizing questions about the existing resort. After the dawn of the Wizarding World in 2010, Islands of Adventure needed no further advertisement. For the next several years following, corporate attention turned to the Studios park. In just four years, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Transformers: The Ride 3-D, and the entire London expansion were added to balance demand. Since 2016, management alternated major attractions between the two and will keep the streak going between 2020’s Bourne Stuntacular and 2021’s Velocicoaster.

It’s a practice that originates with “The Millennium Project,” a catch-all codename for the shiny, new toy intended to draw crowds back from the shiny, new Islands of Adventure. There were many possibilities, most of them well-documented - Apollo 13 roller coaster, The Simpsons Ride before The Simpsons Ride, Stephen King, etc. - before the solution presented itself with Men in Black: Alien Attack. The franchise was white-hot upon opening, between first and second films, and remains iconic enough to sell stuffed pugs wearing Brooks Brothers.

The eventual opening of Epic Universe, especially with its geographic separation from the other parks, calls for a project of similar import to maintain the tourist balance. Though possible IPs are a complete guessing game and most attempts at speculation sound like throwing darts in a Blockbuster, it’s easier to narrow down exactly where the next big things might go.

KidZone

KidZone entrance
Image: Theme Park Tourist

The name alone will send chills down the spine of any self-respecting forum dweller.

Universal Studios Florida’s designated corner for kids has been on the chopping block for years now. At least once, the metaphorical butcher knife was even sharpened.

In 2017, two years after the partnership between Nintendo and Universal was first announced, permits were publicly filed to bulldoze everything past E.T. Adventure. The wrecking ball came so close to swinging that queues for two haunted houses at Halloween Horror Nights 27, namely Ash vs Evil Dead and Scarecrow: The Reaping, had to be diverted around what would’ve been a construction zone before the event was through.

HHN came and went. So did the plans.

There have been hints and held-breaths since - a persistent rumor dating back to the earliest Nintendo announcement is a rerouting of the E.T. queue through or around Café La Bamba to avoid whatever does eventually come - but nothing concrete. From the Animal Actors amphitheater to Fievel’s Playland, it’s easily the biggest open plot left for Universal Studios Florida to revitalize. Judging by the aforementioned permits and plans, this fact is not lost on the powers that be. But now that some of the old tenants are moving out anyway, they have a few more options.

A Day in the Park with Barney

Barney entrance plaza
Image: Universal

The most recent eviction is everybody’s favorite purple dinosaur. When the temporary closure last summer turned permanent, A Day in the Park with Barney ended a 25-year run as the Studios’s only show catered solely to the little ones. It’s a respectable run for a respectable attraction that most guests without kids didn’t even know existed. 

Smart bet says it’s the starting gun, the most expensive and complicated piece of KidZone now gone. Demolition is now only a matter of time. Curious George Goes to Town has been closed for hygienic concerns, anyway. Those two parcels would make for a good headstart.

But with Epic Universe still four years away and not even a cold rumor about anything fast-tracked here, that seems too drastic for the time being. Two simultaneous construction projects, one entire park, one entire land, would take a massive amount of capital in an economy that’s still playing catch-up.

A Day at the Park with Barney, though, is the biggest standalone structure in KidZone, not counting Animal Actors. The current footprint is slightly smaller than Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, but depending on the necessity of some backstage facilities, it could easily expand to outgrow it. The infrastructure is already in place for a live show. The theming isn’t too elaborate for a fast swap.

It may not be “Millennium Project” caliber, but this theater is an easy opportunity to work in more of Universal’s kid-friendly stable into the park. The trolls of Trolls already meet outside E.T. Most of the DreamWorks and Illuminations characters already have costumes at the ready. The right famous faces could bring a little more life to KidZone and keep it busy at least until the bulldozers finally arrive.

On the tear-off maps that occupy desks at discount ticket centers, Barney is still listed as a third of all children’s entertainment in the park. Losing the show is far more devastating than merchandise sales. Whatever does comes next to the Studios needs to stem that tide and cater to guests too little for motion simulators and explosions.

Fear Factor Live

Fear Factor Live performance
Image: Wikimedia Commons; user: ZappaOMatic (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

From the land that wouldn’t die to the attraction.

Like KidZone, Fear Factor Live has narrowly evaded death for a long time, arguably since its construction. Not a year after the grand opening, the NBC inspiration of the same name was cancelled. To date, the theme park equivalent has outlasted two reboots and a change of network. It’s currently closed, the outdoor seating repurposed as a mask-off break area, but unless Universal announces otherwise, the show will go on.

Despite being more resilient than the cockroaches its contestants regularly eat, Fear Factor Live is a common source of speculation. Cornered between the Diagon Alley expansion and Men in Black World’s Fair, the theater looks more out of place by the year. It has survived virtually unchanged since 1991, when an adaptation of Universal Studios Hollywood’s long-running Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show originated the space. The falling house trick, already cribbed from Buster Keaton, still closes out every performance. The infrastructure itself is one of the oldest buildings on property left largely untouched.

It was supposed to close around HHN 27, like its doomed neighbor across the lagoon, but a Bill and Ted farewell tour kept it around long enough to stick. Alleged plans for a Harry Potter expansion to loop it into the London zip code vaporized with the Nintendo permits.

Four years later, it endures. The HHN 30 website has a single mystery slot for live entertainment. That could mean a stage by Mel’s or anywhere else for that matter, but it most likely means the theater isn’t dead yet. But consider its utility even then, the quietest corner of an otherwise packed park. For a Transformers-sized plot of land, that can’t pass muster much longer.

Whether or not it ends up magically connected to the franchise next door, this is prime real estate to bring some attention back to the Studios, fittingly right next to the original Millennium Project. And in a post-pandemic, post-Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue world, Universal could use another killer outdoor show.

Maybe more shows period...

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Comments

One spot that always seems to get overlooked is the area east of MIB Alien Attack and north of The Simpsons Ride. Lots of unused space.

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