It’s not always easy, but fans of themed parks try their best to expect the unexpected. After all, themed entertainment projects – especially those orchestrated by industry giants Disney and Universal – tend to evolve in secret. As the last year alone has shown, you never know when Disney will quietly launch a meet-and-greet, announce a new theme park land no rumor blogs one had even rumored, or even fire its CEO just weeks after extending his contract.

Even still, we doubt that any fans’ Bingo cards would’ve contained Universal’s surprise announcement in January… Even with massive new projects under development at its resorts across the globe and a brand new, full-scale theme park in Orlando (the first destination park in the U.S. since 2001’s California Adventure), Universal announced a new project that left theme park fans in a frenzy: a totally new, family-scaled theme park coming to Frisco, Texas. 

Obviously, we dove into everything we know about the new park in a standalone feature… But one of the most talked about elements of this new kind of park is a topic some Disney fans aren’t too excited to consider: shouldn’t Disney have done this kind of thing first? Today, we’ll dig into our thoughts and ask for yours as we consider whether Disney will regret letting Universal gain a foothold in a new model of park…

The Concept

This early site plan does not necessarily match the final site plan or the concept art, but generally captures the plot of land and its general layout. Image: Orlando ParkStop

First, it’s important to understand what Universal is going for here…

We know that Universal’s parcel of land in Frisco amounts to about 97 acres, meaning that the entire property that Universal plans to develop is about the size of Magic Kingdom or Disneyland. However, keep in mind that that’ll include a large surface parking lot, a hotel, and additional expansion pads in addition to the park itself. Plans suggest that the park itself will occupy just 30 acres to start – roughly the size of Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland and Hub space (including all affiliated showbuildings). 

Image: Universal

Though Universal hasn’t officially confirmed anything beyond the single piece of concept art, it’s not difficult to distinguish that this park will likely be themed entirely to DreamWorks Animation (which Universal purchased outright in a $4 billion deal in 2016, mirroring Disney's purchase of Pixar in 2007). It’s not difficult to “see” lands themed to DreamWorks’ biggest franchises – ShrekThe Secret Life of PetsTrolls, and the animated Jurassic World spin-off series, Camp Cretaceous. If the artwork is to be believed, we can also imagine that this family park will largely be made up of decorated flat rides, playgrounds, splash pads, and entertainment. (Only the most optimistic imagine there will be a dark ride or simulator, though we’d love to be proven wrong.)

To be sure, this is not a concept Universal invented. The U.K.-based Merlin Entertainments had hit a home run with its LEGOLAND Parks which dot the globe, with a dozen destination resorts built around family-scaled, mid-tier theme parks (and often built-out with hotels, water parks, and complementary Merlin attractions like SEA LIFE aquariums). SeaWorld Parks is also in this space with its regional Sesame Place parks (themed to PBS’s Sesame Street), not to mention dozens and dozens of independent parks that primarily target families with elementary schoolers, like Pennsylvania’s Idlewild, California’s Gilroy Gardens, and self-contained Nickelodeon Universe parks at several high profile malls.

Why It Matters

So even though this model of theme park isn’t entirely unique, Universal’s entry into the genre is interesting for a few reasons…

1. It finally secures a ‘regional’ tool for the major park operators.

Image: Disney

During Disney’s ambitious expansion period in the ‘90s, the company tried some weird, wacky ways to bring Disney closer to home. It wasn’t just highly-stylized experiences like the Disney Store… In fact, Disney launched an entire division called Disney Regional Entertainment, with projects like ESPN Zone sports bars, Club Disney family entertainment centers, and of course, the Declassified Disaster: DisneyQuest – an indoor, multi-level, immersive arcade once envisioned as an urban attraction that would be duplicated to downtowns across the country. 

What Disney could not find is a medium for connecting with people within a few hours of their home that was sustainable. Think of DisneyQuest, which required high-cost downtown real estate, continuous financial investment due to its technological basis, and couldn’t convince people they needed to come back time and time again. It’s sort of funny that the only thing Disney didn’t try to build to attract a regional audience is the thing people want from them: theme parks. Maybe it’s that Disney wanted to keep its Orlando and Anaheim destinations “special;” maybe it’s that they feared a regional park would siphon off guests…

But here, Universal’s entry into the regional family park model proves the brilliance of the strategy. Forget about this specific park with this IP in this place for a moment and just think about the model of a regional, family-oriented park itself… 

Image: wfaa.com, via Orlando ParkStop

Acquiring undeveloped land outside of a major metropolitan area is much simpler than buying a building downtown. In the LEGOLAND vein, expansions to a park like this one can be as simple as new flat rides, or as elaborate as an add-on waterpark. And best of all, a focus on drawing “families, within the region, with children aged 2 to 9” means that your audience is always refreshing (as new kids are born) and eventually, repeating (as kids become parents themselves and want to share a place where they were born and raised). This is a park that will be powered by Annual Passholders; a place where families return, spending summers; a place where they retreat for “staycation;” a place that will convince parents to bring the family along for their convention in the city so they can sneak away to a world-class, major park operator’s niche, narrowed IP park in the afternoons…

Finally, we see a major theme park operator enter the regional market with a theme park. It’s really not that complicated! And despite Disney Parks loyalists dismissing it as a side project with little chance to change anything significant, we’ve got a few other reasons that Disney should be jealous that Universal entered this space first… Read on…



I actually think an argument can be made that SeaWorld proved this concept first with Sesame Place (less than 20 acres of park space) since the 80s in suburban Philadelphia then expanded the concept to San Diego. Merlin also has been in this business for years with Legoland Discovery Centers, Peppa Pig’s World of Play, and now the new Peppa Pig stand-alone mini-parks. So, while Universal beat Disney in this round (the 90s experiment in Disney Regional Entertainment not withstanding), they’re also following some success others have had.

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