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Universal snaps up more land for potential theme park expansion

By Sharon Kennedy Wynne
Sarah Karp, right, and her sister, Claire Karp-Hauser, ride the Flight of the Hippogriff during a technical rehearsal at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando on May 30, 2010. The opening of the Harry Potter land brought an unprecedented 36 percent spike in attendance. (Chip Litherland/The New York Times)

Universal Orlando has purchased another big chunk of land in Orlando, giving the theme park company more than 570 acres to work with for expansions, possibly including a new theme park.

The land is adjacent to the $130 million purchase Universal made in December 2015 for 475 acres of undeveloped property near the southern end of International Drive. Universal closed on 101 acres for $27.5 million on Thursday, said Robert McEwan, first vice president of CBRE, the real estate company that put together the deal for the seller.

Universal officials confirmed the news in an email Monday, but have not yet outlined plans.

"We are excited for the future, but have no additional details to share now," wrote Universal Orlando spokesman Tom Schroeder.

Universal Orlando Resort currently occupies a fairly compact area, with its theme parks covering some 200 acres and its entire resort area covering nearly 700 acres. Visitors can walk from the front gate of Universal Studios to Islands of Adventure in less than 10 minutes. This summer it added a third water theme park, Volcano Bay, with a 200-foot volcano visible from Interstate 4.

By contrast, Walt Disney Word is spread across 25,000 acres. Hopping from one park to another can take more than 30 minutes by transit.

Universal appears to be on a spending spree after it experienced history-making spikes in attendance after opening its Harry Potter attractions in its current theme parks. But it has been hampered by a lack of space to grow.

Though Disney is still king, with the Magic Kingdom remaining the most popular theme park in the world with 20.4 million visitors last year, Universal has been nipping at its heels.

It began in 2010 when Universal opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and saw an unprecedented 36 percent spike in attendance. During the same period, merchandise sales more than doubled while food sales jumped nearly 60 percent. A second Harry Potter land, Diagon Alley, opened at Universal Studios in 2014.

Parent company Comcast has said it has aggressive expansion plans for Universal theme parks, setting a goal of opening a new attraction every year. There’s a Fast & Furious — Supercharged ride coming to Orlando next year. A new "highly themed" Harry Potter ride is replacing the Dueling Dragons coaster in Islands of Adventure in 2019. And it plans a Nintendo-themed land sometime in the future under a deal with the Japanese video game giant.

This year, Walt Disney World’s market share fell to 69.3 percent of the Orlando theme park market, the first time Disney has fallen below the 70 percent mark, according to a report in June from the Themed Entertainment Association and the engineering firm AECOM. Also in that report, Universal Orlando Resort’s market share passed the 25 percent mark for the first time.

By comparison, Universal drew just 16 percent of the Orlando market in 2009, before the boy wizard arrived.

Already zoned for attractions, hotels and tourism, the new land is an ideal match, said McEwan, who also oversaw the sale of the previous big tract to Universal in 2015.

"The interesting part is, if you look at the theme parks they have now, this is double what they have," McEwan said.

But the land is a few miles to the south and on the opposite side of I-4 from Universal’s existing resort. So a road and transportation system linking the properties may be in the future.

Theme park expert Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services, said he expects to hear an announcement of a new theme park within 18 months, and predicts Universal will spend more than $1 billion in the next five years to open a new park.

"They are on a roll like no one has seen in our industry in decades and their whole mode is geared toward expansion," Speigel said. "They are attempting to do what Disney has done, which is to keep people on property as long as they can. They are going for expansion in hotels, in retail and restaurants, and they need another gate to do that."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.