Universal puts ‘pedal to the metal’ on Epic Universe project

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

The cranes are the most visible sign of progress seen from the tourist district on Universal Orlando’s third theme park, Epic Universe. Driving farther down Sand Lake Road or onto Universal Boulevard, passersby can see concrete structures scattered throughout the site, along with steel frames for eventual buildings.

The ground view offers few clues about how the 750 acres of land will eventually form into Super Nintendo World or the other, yet-unconfirmed fantasy lands for the park. From the air, enterprising drone pilots have captured photos of roller coaster track and supports waiting to be installed on graded land.

With a goal of opening the park by summer 2025, Universal is moving fast on Epic Universe’s construction since the first vertical structures appeared earlier this year.

Universal has kept quiet about the park’s development and content, but that hasn’t stopped fans from piecing together clues about Orlando’s first new major theme park since Islands of Adventure opened in 1999.

Epic Universe is projected to bring $11 billion in economic impact to Orlando between now and the theme park’s opening, said John McReynolds, Universal Orlando’s Senior Vice President of External Affairs.

“It is the largest single investment that the company, Comcast, has put into the parks worldwide,” McReynolds said during a recent luncheon for Orlando’s tourism leaders.

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

About 1,500 construction employees were working on-site in mid-August, he said, and within the next year there will be between 9,000 and 10,000 workers at 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’s race to meet its 2025 deadline.

“We keep hearing from vendors, as well as people in the industry, that use the old term again, ‘pedal to the metal,’” he said. “They’re moving rapidly. They don’t want to get behind.”

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

“This isn’t adding just a show or a ride or an attraction. We’re adding major new entity, which will have a huge impact on Orlando and Florida,” he said.

Universal has filed 283 construction permits for Epic Universe since January, Orange County spokeswoman Kelly Finkelstein said.

They include permits for buildings as well as sub-permits for mechanical, electrical and plumbing work, among other projects. The permits alone offer few details about construction progress. Florida law allows companies to shield from public records information that could be considered proprietary or disclosing trade secrets.

Finkelstein referred specific questions about Epic Universe’s construction to Universal. Company spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.

Extending Kirkman Road through the site, which Universal received up to $125 million from Orange County and $16 million from the state to help complete, is on track to be finished in late 2024, she said. The total estimated cost of the road is about $305 million.

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

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

Universal’s biggest potential issue in building the theme park is supply chain delays that have posed a problem worldwide, he said. But the deliveries of roller coaster tracks and steel to the site shows Universal appears to have avoided major issues so far, Speigel added.

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

Fourth Watch Acquisitions sued Universal and a property development company in April, alleging Universal City Property Management III breached a pre-existing binding agreement to sell the land to Fourth Watch Acquisitions and sold it to Universal. The suit claims Universal interfered in the contract.

Both Universal and the property management firm have denied the allegations in court documents. Universal said it was unaware of any pre-existing agreement 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 past few months trying to keep up with Epic Universe’s rapid construction have been “kind of a whirlwind.”

Stella extensively tracks the park’s development via county permit filings, inside sources and theme park forums and routinely summarizes her findings on her website.

One of the largest developments recent construction unveiled are “big, impressive steel structures” in what Stella believes to be a Universal Monsters-themed area of the park. She predicts one is a show building that will house a ride similar to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

The recently delivered roller coaster track likely belongs to a major dual-track, racing style attraction off the park’s central hub, Stella said. She has spotted separate ride track pieces, along with footers and supports, in other construction areas.

As development progresses, Stella said her early predictions for Epic Universe’s lands and major attractions have remained the same.

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

“I was a huge fan of the Mario and Nintendo games in the 80s and 90s,” she said. “… Walking 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 they expect the intellectual property will bring a similar windfall to Universal Orlando’s 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 first The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-themed land worldwide. The company has since expanded the Wizarding World within the Orlando resort and added the land to its parks in Hollywood, Japan and China.

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

“Harry Potter had the biggest impact we’ve ever seen in the industry,” he said. “.. I don’t know that Nintendo has the ‘clout,’ let’s say, that Harry Potter has, but it’s certainly an important IP. No question, it’s going to be strong.”

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

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

Stella thinks Universal will hold off on releasing details on Epic Universe until late 2023.

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

“You need to be out there two years ahead of time talking to the public,” Speigel said. “So the people who are making their vacations, the tourists planning come to Orlando, can start their planning and making their reservations.”

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