Entertainment

What’s happening at Universal Orlando? It’s all a mystery. Here are some clues.

A dragon stands guard atop Gringotts bank and occasionally breathes fire on Diagon Alley in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.
A dragon stands guard atop Gringotts bank and occasionally breathes fire on Diagon Alley in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. mlambert@miamiherald

Universal Orlando is dealing in a lot of mystery this year: What will replace Terminator 2, which closed in October? What will the new Nintendo attractions be and where will they go? Universal isn’t answering questions.

Nothing Universal is doing is as mysterious as the land the company has acquired off Sand Lake Road. Some of the land has been cleared and roads are being built, but Universal hasn’t revealed its plans for the property. Speculation on fan sites has been feverish. Will it become Universal’s fourth Orlando park?

“We are looking at it,” Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, said during an earnings call on Thursday. “We love the theme park business.”

Universal has had several developments this year, some of which made big splashes. The Fast and Furious — Supercharged ride debuted in the spring, and a new water and light show replaced Cinematic Spectacular in July, both at Universal Studios. Voodoo Doughnut has opened at Universal CityWalk. The resort’s sixth hotel, Aventura, opens in August, and others are planned. And at least we know that the ride replacing Dragon Challenge, which closed in September at Islands of Adventure, will be another Harry Potter-themed roller coaster.

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Behind construction walls at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, cranes move sections of track into place for a new Harry Potter-themed roller coaster where the Dragon Challenge coaster once stood. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

No question, these are important times for Universal Orlando, a resort with three parks, including its water park, Volcano Bay; five hotels — six when Aventura opens; CityWalk dining and entertainment center; the Harry Potter franchise, which has driven a combined 67 percent increase in attendance at the two theme parks since the first Wizarding World opened at Islands of Adventure in 2010; and a commitment to add Nintendo-themed attractions in Orlando and other Universal parks.

The acquisition of hundreds of acres of land in several pieces over a period of years improves Universal’s ability to compete with Disney World, but it’s still a challenge. Disney’s Orlando empire sits on 27,000 acres with four theme parks, two water parks, the sprawling Disney Springs shopping and entertainment center, a campground, golf courses and about 25 hotels with more than 30,000 rooms.

Unlike Disney, which usually announces new lands and attractions years before they open — often before any earth is moved — Universal tends to wait until a new project is well under construction before revealing what it’s working on.

So when the question of a fourth park came up during Thursday’s earnings call for Comcast, Universal’s parent company, Burke’s vague answer was no surprise to fans, who months ago moved on from the question of if there will be a new park to debating what intellectual properties — characters or stories such as Mickey Mouse or Harry Potter that are protected by trademark or copyright — it will feature.

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Krakatau stands at the center of Volcano Bay, Universal Orlando’s new water park. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

Universal had already fought in court to remove a deed restriction against theme parks on part of the land. Photos of new grading and road construction on other Universal-owned property had already been posted on some fan sites. And in June, Universal applied for a trademark on the name “Fantastic Worlds” for use in amusement parks. (In the past, Universal has applied for trademarks on several names that it never ended up using, however.)

Asked Thursday if the trademark filing meant NBCUniversal was looking at a fourth park, Burke answered: “We are looking at it. We filed basically a name registration. We have a lot of great [intellectual properties]. We love the theme park business. It’s one of our best, most consistent businesses. And we think … another gate in Florida would have the advantage of turning Florida from a two or three-day destination to potentially a weeklong destination.”

On Friday, Universal Orlando did not respond to questions about a fourth park or Nintendo. “We’ve got nothing more to add beyond what was shared on the call,” a park spokesman told the travel publication Skift.

Nintendo’s legendary Shigeru Miyamoto and Universal Creative’s Mark Woodbury sat down to discuss how you will step into a larger-than-life Nintendo adventures at Universal Theme Parks across the globe.

In 2015, Universal and Nintendo announced that they were working together on theme park lands, and a year later, said Nintendo lands would be coming to its Japan park first, then Orlando and Southern California. Since then, Universal has broken ground on Super Nintendo World in Japan, scheduled to open in 2020, but has said nothing more about when Nintendo will come to Orlando or what it will include.

Attractions magazine and other fan sites that claimed to have seen plans or talked to knowledgeable sources initially said Nintendo rides would replace attractions in KidZone at Universal Studios, but the park never confirmed that information and construction has not started. Now, people are speculating on fan sites that Nintendo will anchor the fourth park and/or that at least two of the Orlando parks will have Nintendo attractions.

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For a time, it was widely believed that KidZone at Universal Studios was where Universal’s new Nintendo attractions would go. Marjie Lambert mlambert@miamiherald.com

Other themes that fans want to see in a fourth park include more Harry Potter, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, James Bond, Secret Life of Pets, and DreamWorks.

Other than the fourth park and Nintendo, another mystery is what will replace Terminator 2: 3D, which closed last October at Universal Studios. The park has said only that it will be replaced by “an all-new live action experience based on a high-energy Universal franchise” that will open in 2019.

Insidethemagic.net noted that among the Universal franchises that don’t yet have theme park attractions are “The Secret Life of Pets,” the Jason Bourne series, “How to Train Your Dragon” and Dark Universe.

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Terminator’s replacement will be the second ride opening at Universal in 2019 (and competing with the opening of Star Wars land — Galaxy’s Edge — at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in late 2019). A new roller coaster is being built on the site of the former Dragon Challenge coaster in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure. Universal hasn’t said much else about the new coaster other than that it will be a family coaster, unlike Dragon Challenge, which had a minimum height requirement of 54 inches, ruling out most kids under the age of 10.

Elsewhere at the resort, Universal is investing a lot in its hotels. Aventura Hotel, a 17-story hotel with 600 guestrooms, will open later this month. Two budget-priced hotels totaling 1,450 rooms, part of the new Endless Summer Resort, are in the works on the site of Universal’s former water park, Wet ‘n Wild. Surfside Inn and Suites will open in summer 2019, and Dockside Inn and Suites in 2020, in partnership with Loews Hotels.

Follow on twitter: @marjielambert

Marjie Lambert is the Miami Herald’s local government editor. She has spent most of her 40+ years in the newspaper business as a reporter and editor covering government and related news. She was the Herald’s travel editor from 2009 to 2016 and has also written eight cookbooks.


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