Local 6 Theme World - Universal: Go Big or Go Home

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By Ken Pilcher - Producer
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September 19, 2013

Universal: Go Big or Go Home

Universal Studios issued a  rather public challenge to the mouse last week.

Make no mistake: NBCUniversal and its parent company, Comcast, clearly do NOT believe the parks are a mature business. They see them as a growth engine. And they made that abundantly clear last week.

 "We love the theme-park business" --- NBCUniversal President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Burke

Steve Burke gave that quote at an investors meeting, where he also revealed that with additions made in the past three years, internally they value their parks at $10 billion now. That's up from a $1 billion valuation pre-Potter. Let that sink in. That's a $9 billion difference in 3 years.

And Comcast believes there is still plenty of room for improvement. And they have big plans. At the same meeting last week, Universal pledged an attraction a year at its parks here and Hollywood for the foreseeable future. They also say they are looking at building up to 11 thousand more hotel rooms. That would triple their room count, including the under construction Cabana Bay.  

This comes weeks after buying the land its Wet 'n' Wild water park sits on, and I understand more land deals are in the works.

After all, Burke sees their resort as "a family destination in and of itself and not an add-on destination for...somebody that spends three or four days somewhere else."  One guess at which competitor that is aimed at.  

Before we see what attractions this new strategy may bring, here are some examples of where the studios park needs work. The biggest problem is transition and cohesion and that will be the hardest to fix. Take a look at this view of the park as shot  from the Simpsons area:

What's the theme here? You have New York penetrated by Rip Ride Rockit. Next to San Francisco, the industrial barge for its nighttime show in front. Then on the left there is Transformers.

The merits and popularity of the ride are understandable. But that giant grey building sits by itself in the middle of "Production Central" -- which means, what exactly these days? Let's face it: Universal and Disney's Hollywood Studios are both changing strategies.  There is no pretense that Transformers is showing you the making of a big-budget movie. You are supposed to be IN the reality of that movie -- in a way that  The Wizarding World of Harry Potter currently gets almost perfectly.  That same idea is what makes the new Springfield area work. You're supposed to be IN Springfield, no fake behind-the-scenes.

It successfully turned the former Back to the Future area into something different and iconic. Except -- Springfield, too creates a problem. Technically, it is in the "World Expo" area. That made sense for BTTF. But what is practically left that fits the "World Expo' theme?  Not the rarely-used Fear Factor stage. Only the highly-entertaining Men In Black ride.

MIB literally, steals architecture and themes from a real World Expo in New York (1964) but is now thematically orphaned next to what promises to be a beautiful London area (Harry Potter 2.0) which should blend nicely with "San Francisco" on the other side. What can be done to help MIB fit in?  A Fear Factor replacement could help.

Then there is the problem of aging attractions.  I'm looking at you, Twister: Ride it Out.

How many people remember this film? Or Bill Paxton (looking impossibly young)?  It's an "attraction" that, really, wasn't great when it opened. And it's still here 14 years later. That's a flaw in the original concept of a "Studios" park:  taking us "behind the scenes" of something no one cares about anymore.  Then there is an even older attraction: one of the first aimed at immersing you in the movie.

The good news Universal Creative knows these issues better than I do. And I am told there are long-term plans to replace both Terminator 2: 3-D and Twister. But Universal has plans to redevelop different areas first.  

After Potter Part 2, the next likely projects are coming to Islands of Adventure (which hasn't had a new attraction since Potter 1). Sources I trust say we should expect  at least one new Jurassic Park ride. Seuss Landing is also expected to gain an attraction, and Universal is at least leaning towards The Lorax. Back at the studios -- expect major work coming to Woody Woodpecker's KidZone next.

I don't yet know the future of the iconic ET Ride. A lot of it still works, and a lot of it could use some work. Rumors of it being replaced by the Smurfs are probably false, but I hear everything from Barney to Fievel to Curious George may soon face a date with the wrecking ball.  

With plans for at least one attraction a year for the foreseeable future -- we should know more soon.  But first -- let's look forward to Potter 2.0. I hear there will be some exciting surprises in store, and some jaw-dropping visuals.

Keep your emails, questions, tips and comments coming! I always appreciate the feedback.

Here's a link to my most recent Theme World blog entries.

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