Universal Orlando announces a new Florida theme park, Epic Universe

Concept art released Thursday, Aug. 1 by Universal Orlando for its new theme park to be called Universal’s Epic Universe. This will be Universal’s fourth Florida theme park (the company count’s the new Volcano Bay water park as its third theme park). Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando
Concept art released Thursday, Aug. 1 by Universal Orlando for its new theme park to be called Universal’s Epic Universe. This will be Universal’s fourth Florida theme park (the company count’s the new Volcano Bay water park as its third theme park). Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando
Published Aug. 1, 2019

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The Florida theme park wars just got hotter.

Universal Orlando announced Thursday that it will open a brand new theme park called Universal's Epic Universe, nearly doubling the entertainment company's acreage in Central Florida.

This will be Universal's fourth Florida theme park. Universal's Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, and Volcano Bay water park in 2017. It "represents the single-largest investment Comcast NBC Universal has made in its theme park business and in Florida overall," said Brian L. Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast, Universal's parent company.

Gov. Ron DeSantis attended Thursday's press conference at the Orange County Convention Center to tout the economic impact of the new park, including the 14,000 new jobs that it is expected to create. That's in addition to the 25,000 people Universal Orlando currently employs.

"We look forward to Universal's continued contribution to our state's economic growth and development," DeSantis said in a statement before the announcement. "And we are especially grateful for Universal's partnership in improving Shingle Creek, which plays a critical role in serving the Everglades."

The new theme park will be on a 750-acre site south of Sand Lake Road and east of Universal Boulevard, not connected to the existing Universal Orlando Resort, but a few miles away and within sight of the convention center.

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The long-rumored theme park is already under construction. With the news finally confirmed, speculation turned to which of Comcast's many intellectual properties will be included in the new park.

Nintendo seems a likely candidate since Super Nintendo World has already been confirmed for Orlando at some time in the future. But the company also owns Dreamworks Animation franchises including How to Train Your Dragon, Kung-Fu Panda, Madagascar and Shrek (which is getting an upcoming reboot). And Illumination franchises include The Secret Life of Pets and Sing. Another Wizarding World of Harry Potter land — likely from the Fantastic Beasts series — has long been speculated.

In a vague description, Universal said Epic Universe will "take guests on a journey where beloved stories expand into vibrant lands." An artist's rendering released Thursday makes it appear similar in structure to Islands of Adventure. Each land could represent a popular media franchise.

"Our vision for Epic Universe is historic," said Tom Williams, CEO Universal Parks and Resorts. "It will build on everything we have done and become the most immersive and innovative theme park we have ever created. It is an investment in our business, our industry, our team members and our community."

Universal has been giving Disney a run for its money ever since Harry Potter showed up in 2010 and brought double-digit increases in attendance. Though it is still a distant second to Walt Disney World, it keeps closing the gap and adding hotels to the mix to encourage longer stays.

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RELATED: Universal opens first budget hotel, Surfside Inn and Suites

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter rocked the whole theme park industry, creating an entire land instead of a single ride based around a franchise or movie. Now Disney, Universal and even SeaWorld with a Sesame Street partnership, have created comprehensive lands of themed rides, shops and dining. Disney has responded with new lands based on Avatar, Toy Story and coming Aug. 29, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

Epic Universe will also feature an entertainment center, hotels, shops and restaurants.

An economic impact study for Universal conducted by University of Central Florida economic professor Sean Snaith found that Universal's combined direct and indirect economic benefit to the Florida economy since Universal Studios opened in 1990 is $73 billion. The new park alone will contribute a total of $11.5 billion in benefits to the Florida economy, he said.

The company says it currently contributes more than $302 million in annual state and local taxes — a number that will nearly double when the new theme park opens.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, who was also at the news conference, spotlighted Universal's role in the Kirkman Road extension. The 50-50 public-private partnership has Universal investing $160 million to extend Kirkman into the area where the new park will be located.

"The Kirkman extension will improve transportation through a busy and growing portion of our county and open up the entire area for additional development — including an important expansion of our convention center," Demings said.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.