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Universal Orlando Resort has been growing at an exponential rate within its own gates, and even though they've been bringing new rides and attractions to both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida over the past few years, Universal has officially run out of space. Though most figured that Universal would simply continue to improve its two parks over the years, given its space constraints, several weeks ago news broke that Universal was interested in purchasing land near the in-development SKYPLEX Orlando project for a potential expansion. 

Days later reports surfaced claiming that Universal was under contract to purchase the land. And now, only a day before Christmas it has been confirmed that as of December 23rd, the sale of this additional land parcel to Universal Orlando Resort parent company Comcast has been completed. However, even though this initially seems like cause for celebration, Universal hasn't had a lot to say on the matter, and has refused to comment on this development even though we now know that Universal now owns 450 acres of undeveloped land. Though it's not much to go on, here's everything we think we know about Universal's sneaky land purchase. 

1. The Christmastime closure date is not an accident 

Image: CBRE

Universal Orlando Resort has been keeping the purchase of this land out of the news as much as possible, only quietly revealing the existence of the deal during their campaign to block the SKYPLEX Orlando project back in November. Though we’ve known for awhile that the land was under contract, Universal picked a day to finalize the deal when almost no one was paying attention to theme park news. Though several media outlets reached out to Tom Schroder in the past 24 hours, Universal's media spokesman has confirmed that the company will not be commenting in response to questions about this matter. Of course, this is not surprising considering Universal’s continued refusal to comment on their interest in the property. However, when you consider some of the following factors, their secrecy does make some sense. 

2. Universal probably doesn’t know what it is doing with the land yet

 

Universal has a reputation for moving quickly, but the plan to purchase this land came together very quickly, even for them. The land was only made available for sale a few months ago, and while Universal has likely been eyeing this spot for some time (interestingly enough the land used to belong to Universal before it was sold off by previous Universal parent company, Universal Vivendi), the Orlando Sentinel reports that a source with knowledge of the deal said that there likely is no timeline for development of this land yet.

Because this sale came together so quickly, Universal probably only has a rough idea about what they plan to do with the property, and will probably spend the next few months brainstorming and coming up with potential ideas about new parks, hotels, etc. that could potentially use this new land. though plans for this new land are probably still forming, Universal does have one ace in their pocket currently... 

3. The land has already been approved for zoning

Though the zoning process can be long and arduous (as we’ve seen from the recent SKYPLEX Orlando proceedings), the land that Universal has purchased has already been zoned for thousands of hotel rooms, residential units and theme-park style attractions. So even if Universal isn’t exactly sure what they want to do with this land quite yet, they have the flexibility to do pretty much anything they want without worrying about going through the City of Orlando's zoning commission, which means any project they put together in the next few months could be started immediately without waiting for approval.

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Comments

"Universal Orlando Resort has already proven that it is an international destination worthy of competing in a serious way with Walt Disney World. While it's unlikely that Universal will ever truly "beat" it's neighbor in Orlando in terms of attendance or revenue, the fact is that more and more guests are spending more and more time at Universal during an Orlando vacation, which means they are spending less at Walt Disney World."

That's not at all what the numbers show.

According to the Themed Entertainment Association, Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World outperformed Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida by 11 million visitors in 2014. Even the least attended WDW park - Hollywood Studios - outperformed Universal by 2 million. When Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in IOA in 2010, it spiked IOA's attendance from 5.9 million in 2010 to 7.6 million in 2011. It pretty much plateaued out from there at 7.9 million in 2012, and 8.1 million in 2013 and 2014. There was do discernible impact on Walt Disney World's attendance, except for a slight rise of about 100K in 2011. Magic Kingdom took a jump of 1 million visitors in 2013 due to the opening of New Fantasyland and another 800K in 2014 due to the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The opening of Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida had no impact on Disney at all: all it did was bring the two Universal parks into parity (because you have to do them both now to see all of Harry Potter). Universal Florida was dawdling at 1 million fewer visitors than IOA between 2011 and 2013. Attendance at Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios has been steadily growing between 200K-500K each year since 2011.

What is actually happening according to the numbers is not that Universal is drawing people away from Disney. Instead, Harry Potter is 1) bringing people to Orlando who might not have otherwise come who are also including Disney in their trip, and 2) causing people who are going to Disney to chose to spend an extra day at Universal rather than Sea World, Kennedy Space Center, or the other smaller Florida attractions. Far from a threat, Universal's expansion has actually benefited Disney. Universal essentially acts as Disney's "5th gate."

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