Universal steps on the Epic Universe project

On International Drive near Sand Lake Road in Orlando, more than a dozen cranes rise behind souvenir T-shirt shops, forming a backdrop for The Wheel at ICON Park.

The cranes are the most visible sign of progress seen from the tourist district at Universal Orlando’s third theme park, Epic Universe. Driving further down Sand Lake Road or towards Universal Boulevard, passers-by can see concrete structures scattered throughout the site, along with steel frames for occasional buildings.

The view from the ground offers few clues as to how the 750 acres of land will eventually become Super Nintendo World or other fantasy lands not yet confirmed for the park. From the air, enterprising drone pilots have captured photos of the roller coaster track and supports waiting to be installed on level ground.

With a goal of opening the park by the summer of 2025, Universal is making rapid progress in building the Epic Universe since the first vertical structures appeared earlier this year.

Universal has been silent on the development and content of the park, But that hasn’t stopped fans from piecing together clues about Orlando’s first big new theme park since Islands of Adventure opened in 1999.

Epic Universe is projected to generate an $11 billion economic impact on Orlando between now and the theme park’s opening, said John McReynolds, senior vice president of External Affairs for Universal Orlando.

“This is the largest single investment that the company, Comcast, has made in parks around the world,” McReynolds said during a recent luncheon for Orlando tourism leaders.

NBCUniversal is investing several billion dollars toward the park’s construction, including $1 billion in 2022 alone.

About 1,500 construction workers were working on the site as of mid-August, he said, and within the next year there will be 9,000 to 10,000 workers on the property daily until the park opens.

Dennis Speigel, founder and CEO of International Theme Park Services, said the theme park industry is closely watching Epic Universe race to meet the 2025 deadline.

“We keep hearing vendors, as well as people in the industry, using the old term again, ‘full throttle,’” he said. “They are moving fast. They don’t want to be left behind.”

The park will be a world-class addition to the attractions industry, Speigel said, and hopes are high for its debut.

“This is not just adding a show, a ride or an attraction. We are adding a major new entity, which will have a huge impact in Orlando and Florida,” he said.

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Universal has submitted 283 building permits for the Epic Universe since January, Orange County spokeswoman Kelly Finkelstein said.

They include building permits as well as sub-permits for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing work, among other projects. The permits alone offer few details about the progress of the construction. Florida law allows businesses to protect themselves from information in public records that could be considered proprietary or reveal trade secrets.

Finkelstein referred specific questions about the construction of the Epic Universe to Universal. Company spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment.

Extend Kirkman Road through the site, which Universal received up to $125 million orange county and $16 million from the state to help complete, is on track to be completed by the end of 2024, he said. The estimated total cost of the highway is about $305 million.

Speigel said construction on the Epic Universe will ramp up next summer when the project reaches a critical period. The site will “look like an anthill” as Universal deploys workers to layer theming and decoration on the finished structures.

“Those last two years are an incredibly intense timeline for the project, requiring supernova manpower,” he said.

Universal’s biggest potential problem in building the theme park is supply chain delays that have posed a problem around the world, he said. But deliveries of steel and roller coaster rails to the site show that Universal appears to have avoided major problems so far, Speigel added.

An ongoing legal dispute over 135 acres of land along Universal Boulevard, just southwest of property specifically allocated for the Epic Universe, poses another potential roadblock to future Epic Universe construction, Speigel said.

Fourth Watch Acquisitions sued Universal and a real estate development company in April, alleging that Universal City Property Management III violated a pre-existing binding agreement to sell the land to Fourth Watch Acquisitions and sold it to Universal. The lawsuit claims that Universal interfered with the contract.

Both Universal and the property management firm have denied the allegations in court documents. Universal said it was not aware of any pre-existing agreements to purchase the land, records show.

Records show Universal City Property Management countersued Fourth Watch Acquisitions in July.

Alicia Stella, a theme park mega-fan who runs a website called Orlando ParkStop, said the last few months trying to keep up with the rapid construction of the Epic Universe have been “kind of a whirlwind.”

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Stella closely tracks park development through county permit applications, inside sources, and theme park forums, routinely summarizing her findings on her website.

One of the biggest recent construction developments featured is “big, impressive steel structures” in what Stella believes is a Universal Monsters-themed area of ​​the park. She predicts that one is an entertainment building that will host a Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey-like ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

The recently delivered roller coaster track likely belongs to a major dual-track racing-style attraction in the center of the park, Stella said. She has seen separate pieces of walkway, along with footers and supports, in other areas of construction.

As development progresses, Stella said that her early predictions for the lands and main attractions of the Epic Universe have remained the same.

The area she’s most excited about, Super Nintendo World, is the only land Universal has confirmed for the park.

“I was a huge fan of Mario and Nintendo games in the ’80s and ’90s,” she said. “…Getting into that land, hearing the music and seeing all the characters, I think that’s going to be the big emotional moment for me.”

Universal executives said in early 2020 that they expect the intellectual property to generate a windfall similar to Universal Orlando theme park attendance and profits as Harry Potter did in 2010.

Universal’s annual revenue grew 41% that year as tourists flocked to Islands of Adventure to visit the world’s first The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-themed land. Since then, the company has expanded the Wizarding World within the Orlando complex and has added land to its parks in Hollywood, Japan and China.

Speigel doubts that Nintendo will bring the power that Harry Potter had, but is hopeful that it will resonate with guests.

“Harry Potter had the biggest impact we’ve ever seen in the industry,” he said. “… I don’t know if Nintendo has the ‘influence’, let’s say, that Harry Potter has, but it certainly is important intellectual property. There is no doubt, it will be strong”.

The industry is watching how Super Nintendo World works at Universal Studios Hollywood when it opens early next year, Speigel said. Universal Studios Japan released the first version of the company’s land in March 2021 and has since seen “very, very strong” performance, he said.

Both Nintendo lands are believed to feature some of the same Orlando-bound attractions, shops, and restaurants.

Stella believes that Universal will postpone releasing details about the Epic Universe until the end of 2023.

Speigel thinks the timeline could be even shorter and Universal could make an announcement as soon as the last quarter of 2022 or early 2023.

“You have to be there two years before you speak to the public,” Speigel said. “So people who are taking their vacations, tourists who are planning to come to Orlando, can start planning and making their reservations.”

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