Universal Orlando Sets Billion Dollar Budget to Battle Disney

Written by Eric Davis. Posted in Features, Universal Orlando

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Published on October 16, 2012 at 12:41 am with 46 Comments

When the Universal Orlando resort brought Harry Potter into their Islands of Adventure theme park, everyone finally sat up and took notice.  The theme park community stood in awe of this brand new attraction.  Uni is just about to take that up a few notches with an expansion more than doubling the size of the Potter World and some big new attractions in the rest of the resort as well. We have some surprising and very welcome news to share at the end of this resort update which would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.

We begin our Universal Orlando Resort update in Islands of Adventure this week.  It seems that Universal is doing right by this once overlooked park and going headlong into a refurbishment renaissance. When the park opened to less than anticipated attendance, cutbacks became the name of the game. Certain lands, such as the Toon Lagoon, were left to slowly fade away.

But since the massive crowds of Potter, all that has changed. Extensive sandblasting and repainting of the park is occurring. What’s really exciting about all this is that day guests are not seeing the work happening.  Universal is being very careful to maintain the “show” aspect of the park as much as possible and the bulk of the work is being done overnight. That is something that only Disney used to pride itself on.

Port of entry dome fully repainted.

TOON LAGOON
We swing through Toon Lagoon and notice that the bright, cartoonish buildings have a fresh coat of paint that really makes them pop.

The foam surface treatment near some of the water features is being prepped for replacement too. Everything old and dingy is being spruced up.

SUESS LANDING
The aggressively prismatic tones of Suess Landing are also being cared for.  While most of the buildings have been painted, they have also started to repaint the walkways.  

Here we see the extent to which the nightly maintenance crews are stripping the concrete and then painting large surfaces.

Vast areas of paint have been sandblasted away to prepare for repainting, rather than just applying paint on top of the previous coat.

You can clearly see the painted and unpainted sections here.

It really makes a difference.

What sets Suess Landing apart is the continuity of its convincing cartoon world.  Swirling reds and yellows clash playfully with aquas and whites.  It is evident that Universal understands that while particularly high maintenance, this color palette is essential to creating a convincing atmosphere here. Kudos to Uni for maintaining the land as the designers intended it, rather than painting it all with blacktop after a season or two of wear.

HOGWART’S EXPRESS
Meanwhile, work continues on the Hogwart’s Express station between the Lost Continent area and Dragon Challenge.

SPOILER ALERT: We’ve heard some very encouraging news about this attraction, which will be much more than just transportation between the parks. Apparently, the train will be an immersive experience hauling you between London and Hogwarts. You’ll encounter students on the train and see elements of the Potter world play out in front of you through the windows of the train (such as the Weasley’s flying car and a Dementor attack). Rides will offer variation, so if you make the trip between the parks more than once, you won’t experience the same exact story.  There’s a whole lot more to the attraction that we won’t spoil for you, but the more we hear about the Potter expansion, the more excited we are about it.

Hopping over to Universal Studios Orlando we see that the two major construction projects are coming along nicely.

HARRY POTTER 2.0
The Harry Potter expansion inside of the Universal Studios Park is becoming much more visible as it rises above the construction fences.  This area of the park will be depicting the London side of the wizarding world.  It will include many of the familiar facades from the story and will be anchored by a new, major attraction, through Gringott’s Bank.

We hear that Ollivander’s Wand Shop may be moving to a larger location in the Diagon Alley section of the new land and finally resolve the overcrowding problem with the current shop in Hogsmead (they’ll accomplish this with dual wand selection theaters).

TRANSFORMERS
As you can see, the frame of the Transformers show building is coming along quickly.  With crews literally working around the clock, They are attempting to have a major, new attraction in place for the 2013 Summer season. Obviously, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

Outside the park in CityWalk, the newly opened gift store got a quick name change.  Formerly known as PYQ, it seemed that too many people were pronouncing it “pike.”  The name is actually pronounced “pick.”  So, out went the clever use of the letter Y and in went the exclamation mark. Let’s hope this works or else they may start spelling it with numbers.

SO BLUE
The Blue Man Group theatre was recently stripped of its mural on the facade.  We hear that there will be a new piece installed here soon.

Universal Orlando is really trying hard to be seen as the premiere tourist destination in Central Florida.  Since the initial success of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando has been granted a massive expansion budget. We hear that an estimated 1.5 Billion dollars has been allocated to spend on capital investments over the next 10 years. That’s approximately the amount of money that Disney recently spent on the renovation of California Adventure (including Cars Land and Little Mermaid).

The spending began with the fast tracking of a Transformers ride.  At an estimated 40 million, the attraction will easily be the major new attraction in Orlando for the Summer of 2013 and will be marketed as the high energy alternative to what is perceived as a lackluster offering from Disney.  But further down the road is the big prize – the massive Harry Potter expansion.  This expansion will tie the two parks together with a Hogwarts train system and include a major E-Ticket, family rides and attractions, shops and dining and comes at an estimated total price of around 600 million.  That still leaves another 850 million to spend.  Think of it.  A resort that was already doing well, is seeing a Disney California Adventure sized investment being poured into it. This is the theme park equivalent of a dream come true.

Compare all of this to Disney World’s lovely but attraction deficient Fantasyland expansion and Universal Orlando is obviously feeling very confident. Which is why so many new projects have recently been green-lit. Universal sees opportunity and they aren’t going to waste their chance to steal the spotlight. By the time Disney gets around to building Avatar Land, Potter will be dominating the theme park universe with a series of additions planned to keep that fire burning for as long as possible.

Universal Orlando wants more than just one day out of the average tourist visit – with the budgets, creativity and success-at-all-costs attitude to make it happen.

About Eric Davis

By day, Eric is in Marketing and Social Media. But on the weekends, he's a theme park addict. Eric is a frequent contributor to MiceChat's Orlando Parkhopper columns and tends to focus his efforts on what's new and what's news at Universal Studios and SeaWorld.

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46 Comments

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  1. Universal is setting the bar for theme park experience. Its a very smart idea to combine one themed land between two separate parks and link them with a ride! With most people buying hopper tickets, it will guarantee equal success at both parks. Also with Transformers, Universal Studios has a great one-two punch for the next 3-4 years. Haven’t been to Universal since 2000, can’t wait to go back when potter world is complete. We may just have to spend our time there instead of Disney World!

    • I 100% agree that Universal is really setting the bar. They are really demonstrating what escapism truly is. I am in love with what they are doing.

  2. It is nice to see the improvement, especially for parks that have been sporadically maintained in the past. I do hope it is a continued effort, and not just a one time sprucing. There is no doubt that Universal continues the Renaissance of Themed Entertainment with their ongoing investment at all of their parks.

    I do contend with the notion that Disney’s Fantasyland expansion is “attraction deficient” (why does a Universal article always have to take a shot at Disney? Can’t we all just get along?). When the WWOHP expansion was originally implemented, it had one new ride, one new character experience (that was hugely flawed and will be – as of this report – thankfully moving to larger accommodations – great news!), one refurbished restaurant, and one new “tavern”. The Fantasyland expansion will ultimately have two new rides, a brand new restaurant, a new “tavern”, and a trio of new character experiences (Belle, Ariel, and the Princesses meet n greet in the former Snow White location). Not to mention the sweeping changes made to Toontown as part of the Storybook upgrade… So, I am not sure where the deficiency is occurring if the highly touted (deservedly so) Wizarding World expansion sets the mark.

    Regardless, there are great things coming to the sunshine state, and for those willing to embrace Disney, SeaWorld, Universal, and Busch, there is no better vacation destination on the planet! Clearly Florida is setting itself apart from the rest of the world when it comes to themed entertainment.

    • I agree! There is no better place than Orlando Florida to vacation!
      WDW – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom
      UNI – Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure
      SEA – SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Discovery Cove
      MER – Legoland

      Not to mention our Water Parks! Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, Aquatica, Wet N’ Wild and Legoland’s new Water Park

      Orlando is a place where you simply cannot do it all!

    • I think the author means “attraction deficient” in the sense that the new Fantasyland has no big E ticket. Mermaid is a D ticket at best, and the mine train is perhaps a C (that replaces another C ticket that might be better). The new Fantasyland is a disappoint in that regard. I think a lot of people will see the Beast’s Castle and expect an uber dark ride like Forbidden Journey in Potter-land, only to be disappointed with just a restaurant. Yes, a really, really nice restaurant, but not a great ride/attraction. Disney missed the plot on that one.

      • You are correct in your assessment.

    • To answer your question of where the deficiency is, the deficiency is that Disney has added a dark ride which, while the new queue is top quality, is still a near exact copy of an existing ride with known story issues (I rode it on Saturday, so I know this for fact) and a hopefully high level D-ticket ride. Universal, on the other hand, added a state of the art, one of a kind E-ticket experience to their existing, rethemed D- and E-ticket rides that were already in place. Also, their meet and greet appeals to boys and girls, and isn’t too cute for single adults or adults without kids (which is evident from the the huge line). Disney’s meet and greet is very female skewed and only appeals to adults who are willing to go through it to see the clever tricks and animatronics, which most will only do once (again, I went through it, so I’m speaking from first hand experience).

      So, in this regard, for Disney… Carsland: HUGE success… Enchanted Forest: minor success which will need future updates to have longevity. The problem is that Carsland isn’t in Florida and if they build it in Florida it will have the stigma of being just another copy.

      • And cloning Carsland for Florida would make DCA’s less special.

    • That mention is there because Disney opened the door to universal to make all these changes because Uni perceives them as being vulnerable. That’s why they rushed Transformers, to show that Uni has something more exciting than princess meet and greets. It was a VERY smart move by Universal and made possible by lackluster projects from Disney World. If you leave a door open, someone will eventually walk through it. I’m thankful that Uni is reminding Disney how it should be done.

      Perhaps Disney can refocus and forget about all this Next Gen and princess stupidity and start building attractions that we can all be excited about again.

      For the billions they will spend on Next Gen, Disney could have kept Uni in the dust. Now it will take Disney 10 years to catch back up with Uni. All because Disney’s priorities are way off base in Orlando.

      • Thanks for the clarification, gang, and while I only partially agree with your points (most preview visitors have been very pleased with what they have seen out of New Fantasyland so far, E-ticket or not)) , I am very sorry for starting another Disney vs Universal debate. It was not my intent as I am weary with such discussions. Both companies have their merits and both need each other to be in top form in order for us theme park fans to reap the rewards of better attractions.

  3. I’d prefer that Universal didn’t just copy it’s excellent Transformers attraction in Orlando
    and that WDW didn’t just copy its pretty good Little Mermaid ride at WDW.
    Clones of what we have in CA don’t make me want to cross the country.

    The Harry Potter expansion is tempting though. Thanks Universal, and please hurry on Universal Hollywood’s WWoHP! And don’t make it a clone, please. Make it a different MUST SEE place so that Harry Potter fans with the means will have to see both Wizarding Worlds.

    BigWig30 (post above), Orlando might be the “capital of themed entertainment,” but unless one is under 12, I think that even better vacations can be taken in California, London/Paris, and many other places. And as much as I love theme parks, I’ve never been on a ride that’s equal to skiing and white water rafting. Unfortunately those thrills can get expensive.

    • P.S. On second thought, Universal, feel free to give Universal Hollywood a cloned Spiderman attraction. That ride is awesome! Or if Marvel’s owners, Disney, won’t let you, please offer to build them a Spiderman or Avengers attraction.

      • Well I am fine with them doing some cloning. With the amount of R&D that goes into developing a ride at Universal, I don’t mind if they have to share those development costs.

        Universal Creative is proving itself to be a real contender with WDI.

      • You won’t see Spiderman at Uni Hollywood. Disney owns Marvel now and won’t allow it.

        Uni is clearly outdoing Disney World these days. Disney better step it up.

  4. Just returned from Uni and IoA. Overall, great parks, but still prefer Disney. It’s old and familiar. Probably not the way Disney wants to be labeled but it serves the 30-40 demographic well.

    IoA’s Entry Port looked amazing. I stood there wondering how they managed to maintain this so well for 20 years. Other areas, namely all the simple Chuck E. Cheese animatronics scattered around the park, are in need of a bit of maintenance. A lot of them are outdoors and have to endure brutal weather conditions. It’s GREAT that they have them – please don’t remove in cost cutting efforts – but then need their own maintenance budget.

    Uni is a mixed bag. I’m so completely over all the simulators, each with their lengthy and sometimes corny pre-shows. I need rides. They have E.T. (thank god), MIB, Mummy and RRR, but otherwise which of their rides actually transport you somewhere instead of making you feel as if you’re going somewhere? Equilibrium does not age well in the average guest…

    • I have to agree with you on the rides transporting you somewhere. Its just cheaper to move through 3d environments than to create the actual experience. I prefer moving through actual sets, but I guess this is the trend now. I guess I’m old school too!

      • Well I do believe that Universal has rides that do transport you. Jurassic Park is a ride that I feel makes you feel away from it all. Even Seuss Landing really had a feel all it’s own.

        While over at the Studio park things have been disjointed. But with these new plans going forward hopefully we are going to see the Studio park emerge with a unified vision and theme.

  5. I would put my money in a pile and burn it before I would ever buy another ticket to Universal. They are such a poor imitation of Walt Disney World. After a cast memeber told my 10 year old daughter that her Disney back pack was frowned upon in Universal I will never go back. They should not even be mentioned in the same sentence.

    • When My 7-year-old daughter wore a bright red Mickey Mouse Disneyland T-Shirt to Universal Hollywood on Saturday I thought we might have some funny comments from Universal CMs. Count Dracula was hilarious. “Why do you wear that rrrrrrat on your shirt?” “It’s not a rat, it’s a mouse!” “Same thing! I do like the color though. Blood stains would not show.” We expected some good natured insults and were not disappointed. At Knott’s, Snoopy pushed me out of his photo area because I was wearing Mickey. I liked it. A lot.

      • Yeah the humor at Universal is a lot more fun. Personally speaking. I love getting off handed comments about some of my Disney gear at Universal, and I also get it at SeaWorld. It is all in good fun.

        I love how the Team Members take time to engage, whether that is about your Disney apparel, your football team, your University or your hat. It is good engagement.

    • Lighten up Francis.

  6. Why is it not okay for Disney to clone a ride from California, but it’s the best thing ever when Universal does it?

    • Because the Universal ride, “Transformers,” is excellent, and the Disneyland ride, “Ariel’s Undersea Adventure” is only pretty good.

      But I would rather that Universal Florida would spend the extra many millions to make the attraction different. Maybe that’s unrealistic since they already have something great.

      When we go to WDW I’m most excited to see attractions we don’t have at Disneyland. If every Disney resort had a different Soarin’ (Soarin’ over the USA, France or Europe, Japan, and China) I’d want to visit all of the Disney resorts. I knew a guy who visited zoos all over the world. Some ski or climb different mountains, or visit different cities. I wish Disney would give fans even more reasons to visit their different parks.

      • Okay, you’ve offered an opinion. Perhaps a family with small children would feel differently from you, so that automatically negates your argument. So I ask again, why praise Universal and chastise Disney for doing the same thing? At least Mermaid isn’t essentially a copy of another ride on property, only with a different film playing while you move through the video screens. On that note, why is Disney criticized so harshly for the use of video screens in rides, yet Universal builds two essentially identical rides made up pretty much of nothing but video screens and they’re the new creative geniuses in town? I’m sorry, but I’d much rather have lavish physical sets and advanced animatronics. You can’t hold one company to a certain standard and then heap praises on another company for doing the exact things you lambaste the first company for. Not really how the world works.

      • And don’t get me wrong, Spidey and Transformers are both well done and fun attractions. However, it’s not fair to have such a clear double standard. We should demand originality from both companies, not look the other way for Universal because you think the ride they are cloning is better than the ride Disney is cloning.

  7. WDW get a lion’s share of the tourist market for central florida. WDW two smaller (in regard to attendance) parks, DAK and DHS, combined for an annual attendance of 19.4 million visits compared to USF and IOA combined take of 13.7. So even with the IOA harry potter success, UNI still playing second fiddle to WDW. They are trying to capture a larger piece of the market that Disney Dominates and in doing so close the gap a bit. And they have closed the gap, but the gap between the two is a massive over 30 million visits plus in favor of WDW. WDW’s combined attendance of its four parks is over 47 million annually.

    IOA has had some success to steal 1 day way from the the Disney Family Vacation, can hope they steal a second day but making massive improvements to their original park. I hope so too because while Disney will easily remain number one, it will (or at least should!) prompt Disney to want to get that lost market share back. And I completely agree that next gen is NOT the way to do this. ATTRACTIONS, are the way.

    • Excellent post, Kidgenie!

    • While I agree, I also disagree. Not all dollars are created equal, and not all visits are created equal.

      Universal is starting to get first dollars spent in Orlando, and Disney is starting to get what is left. This is a concerning trend if it proves to be a long term trend.

  8. Universal’s success can only mean good news for Disney fans. The healthy competition will spark a fire under their backsides and theme park fans will reap the benefits. I’m incredibly excited for the future of themed entertainment.

    • I 100% agree! Competition is GREAT for all of theme park fans!

  9. I don’t want an exact carbon copy of Transformers from Hollywood in Orlando thank you very much; make it a different experience from the one here in CA, as Orlando has more room to do more fun stuff, like more track length and special effects.

    Timekeeper

    • Well I do believe that we will be getting a much different exterior however the interior will be the same.

  10. Universal is clearly setting the bar for everyone else these days. Sadly, Disney is no longer a leader and is simply a follower in the themed attractions industry. My first thought when I saw images of Gaston’s Tavern was “haven’t I seen this before in The Three Broomsticks?” The Butterbeer rip-off doesn’t help at all. Yes, Fantasyland is a vast improvement to Magic Kingdom…but now what? Avatar has some big shoes to fill….if it’s still happening.

    • If the new HP area is also excellent, I’ll feel an obligation to visit it to reward Universal’s ambition. Good post, Bradrider, but with RCR and Carsland, Disney showed it’s still a leader, just not THE leader. In fact in Florida it’s now following Universal.

    • Disney needs to stop focusing on corporate synergy, Squeezing out every last dime of profit at the expense of the guest experience, and stop trying to CONTROL every aspect of their PAYING CUStOMERS experience. Seems like the word fun is now a 4 letter word for Disney execs……..it’s beyone pathetic.

  11. What is the distance between HP 1.0 and 2.0 by Hogswart’s Express? I haven’t been to the studios park in nine years. I can’t wait to return at the end of the month.

  12. Wow universal orlando sure has a great momentum going. It’s going to be interesting to see how attendance numbers fall in Orlando in the next 5-10 years. My guess is that universal/sea world will have dramatic increases in the Orlando theme park share.
    Also about the hogwarts train, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a similar experience to King Kong 360 at hollywood. That system is already designed for a train, can simulate motion, along with the large projections that are played outside. Different projections could easily be used to ensure unpredictability, just as star tours has different scenes. Universal was wise to perfect the projection technology and they’ve been using it wonderfully in their attractions!
    I live in CA and I’ve visited Orlando once and will probably visit again once universal finishes Potter 2.0. My girl friend is a huge potter fan, and although I am not, I thoroughly enjoyed the Potter experience at IOA, and look forward to more of that quality. Good attractions are good no matter what they are based on, that’s why carsland is a huge success even though it’s based on one of pixar’s lesser successful films. So I will visit Universal twice before ever visiting Disney World. I think that says a lot.

    • I agree that they just need to keep the momentum going! They need to keep investing, and keep over delivering to the guests!

  13. Not to burst too big of a bubble, but I’m sure a few hundred million of that 1.5 billion will be spent outside of the theme park as they build the previously announced family suite fourth hotel.

    • Sorry you are correct. The money already claimed actually includes the cost of Cabana Bay the new hotel.

  14. It is very clear that Universal has some great plans. Disney used to be the place to be “wowed” by innovative technology and immerse environments, but this Fantasyland expansion is just too little too late. Disney SHOULD

    • Sorry about that… I accidentally entered the comment. Disney SHOULD have new E -tickets ready for each of its four parks. If they opened one a year and rotated, it would bring back guests. Right not the Fantasyland expansion is not moving me to plan a new trip to WDW.

  15. I believe Universal raised the bar with regards to what a Resort – Theme Park should be with their opening in Singapore last year … & this bar is being raise @ both their Orlando & Hollywood Locations (which should encourage the Walt Disney Co to put more thought into what they will offer @ both the Disneyland – DCA Resort and Walt Disney World Resort) ….

    bravo Universal bravo (except for taking out JAWS in Orlando – sigh)

    C J