Flush with success from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando is often rumored to be considering adding a third theme park. But practical limitations may make this impossible...
Universal Orlando is smaller than Walt Disney World. Much smaller. The difference is staggering: where Universal has around 840 acres to work with, Disney's property spans a ridiculous 25,000+ acres. Walt Disney was thinking ahead he acquired the property: he knew that the resort would need land to expand into. If Disney wants to add a fifth or even a sixth theme park, space shouldn't be a major issue.
Not so at Universal, which already manages to cram two theme parks (Universal Studios Florida), four hotels, the CityWalk entertainment distict and a vast parking structure onto its land. Yes, it owns nearby Wet 'n' Wild on International Drive, too - but converting that water park to another purpose would hugely expensive.
What could have been
Back in the late 1990s, Universal had ambitious plans for its Orlando resort. After a disastrous opening year, Universal Studios Florida had established itself as a popular destination for visitors to Central Florida. The company's creative teams - who had never built a major ride before the Florida park opened - could now rival Disney's Imagineers. Plans were announced for a second theme park, Islands of Adventure, as well as luxury on-site hotels and the CityWalk area. Walt Disney World - in the midst of building its fourth theme park, Disney's Animal Kingdom - was about to have some serious competition.
Islands of Adventure would open in 1999. But Universal didn't plan to stop there. It acquired 2,000 acres of land from Lockheed Martin close to the Orange County Convention Center, where it planned to install two 18-hole golf courses, 700 time-share units and hotels boasting no fewer than 13,000 rooms. A second CityWalk-style retail area was also part of the plans.
Most intriguingly, though, Universal Creative had also begun working on a third theme park concept for the land. One that, according to reports at the time, would be aimed at children (a market underserved by Universal's current attractions). Universal was about to take on Disney at its own game, right in its backyard. It wouldn't stop there, either - there were even proposals for a fourth theme park by 2010, bringing Universal Orlando up to parity with Walt Disney World.
The new theme parks would be located right across the way from the convention center, providing a potentially huge audience. Orange County even ponied up $69 million to buy 230 acres of land from Universal, to enable the center to expand itself.
There were the usual battles between Universal and local residents, who were worried about the the impact the expansion plans would have on traffic and noise levels. Eventually, though, authorities cleared the way for Universal to begin developing the land. As a sop to residents, the theme parks would be built in the middle, and not at the edge of the property as originally intended.
First, though, Universal had a major clear-up operation on its hands. For nearly four decades, the land had been used by Lockheed Martin as a missile-testing site. It was contaminated by toxic waste (some 83 tons of the stuff, including lethal carcinogens), and the bill to prepare it for the expansion would run into tens of millions of dollars. The money raised by selling the portion of land to Orange County was to be used to help fund this effort.
Unfortunately, the clean-up operation was not straightforward, and costs soon began to spiral. Not only that, but Universal Orlando's then part-owner, Vivendi, was struggling financially by 2004. Despite having spent an estimated $40 million on preparing the site, Vivendi instructed Universal's management to sell it. This they did, to Thomas Enterprises, a developer based in Georgia. Since then, portions of it have been developed, and a host of plans have been put forward (but not pursued) for other sections.
The mythical third gate
With Universal's current owner Comcast committed to spending big money on the Universal Orlando Resort every year, as well as adding thousands of hotel rooms, rumors are once again circulating about a third theme park. The reality, though, is that unless something major changes, Universal Orlando probably doesn't have room for a third, full-sized theme park. Maybe a boutique park, or a small water park. But a full-blown theme park, complete with additional parking? It would require incredibly innovative use of Universal's land, and may simply be impossible.
Does that completely rule out a third gate forever? No. But Universal may have to look at alternative options - such as acquiring land elsewhere, and creating a two-center resort (three, counting Wet 'n' Wild). In the meantime, its efforts are likely to be focusing on reworking and enhancing its existing parks, which still have plenty of scope for improvement.