Thursday, June 13, 2024

One epic year out

When it opens in 2025, Epic Universe will be a game changer for Universal Orlando

by Gabrielle Russon

Epic Universe, Orlando’s first theme park built from the ground up in a quarter century, is nearly one year away from opening, with some predicting that Universal Orlando’s new park will revolutionize the industry and raise the bar for the region’s destination theme parks.

Built on 750 acres near the Orange County Convention Center, Epic Universe will be the largest U.S. park in Universal’s global portfolio. The addition of Epic – with five themed lands, more than 50 experiences and three hotels – doubles the size of the current Universal Orlando Resort. Park construction was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the company has stated Epic Universe is on track to open in 2025.

“Our vision is a big one. We want to create a level of experience that frankly forever changes the theme park landscape as you know it today,” said then-Universal Parks and Resorts CEO Tom Williams when unveiling the project in 2019.

Map of the Epic Universe’s five lands

Epic Universe’s themed lands hinge on popular intellectual property that already has a strong track record at the box office and Universal’s other parks. The lands are themed to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Super Nintendo World, and How to Train Your Dragon, as well as a reimagined look at Universal’s classic monsters called the Dark Universe.

For fans, that means visiting the Ministry of Magic, feeling like you are in a giant video game, soaring high with dragons and also keeping your wits in an ominous, monster-filled experience starring Dr. Victoria Frankenstein.

The fifth land, Celestial Park, is the heart of Epic Universe. Celestial Park offers three attractions, including a dual-launch roller coaster called Starfall Racers. But what sets Celestial Park apart is the landscape. The digital renderings show a path through gardens with lush trees and waterways.

Universal Epic Universe – Celestial Park – Park Arrival

“It’s where we put the park back into theme park,” said Mark Woodbury, Chairman and CEO of Universal Destinations and Experiences, in a video released in January introducing the property.

So far, Universal’s publicity on Epic Universe has been mostly limited to that January video and artist renderings, which created a buzz on social media and in the theme park community. The video was watched nearly two million times in six weeks.

“We went to the fans and we asked them, and the answer was pretty compelling. Give us more of your great storytelling, more of the immersive environments and do it in the most visceral manner possible,” Woodbury said in the video. “The idea was to bring you to these worlds you couldn’t otherwise possibly imagine. To do that, we wanted to create a mechanism that allows you to be transported into another world and it starts at the very entrance of the park itself.”

Universal Helios Grand Hotel

The green space at Epic Universe is unique, said Bill Zanetti, an instructor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, who teaches about theme park design and management.

“To see that many waterfalls, and that many trees and gardens surrounding a beautiful path – we haven’t seen that in a long time in the parks,” said Zanetti. “That’s something where the trees will get bigger and the whole area will get more beautiful as time goes on. I think that will be incredible.”

What also sets Epic Universe apart is in how it has been designed to host special events as Universal seeks to tap into business at the Orange County Convention Center. A record breaking 1.57 million people attended OCCC’s 172 events during the 2022-23 fiscal year, according to Visit Orlando.

Universal Epic Universe – Celestial Park

“The park is built so that you can come into one land and not the whole park,” said then-NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell during the UBS Global Conference in 2022, presumably indicating that individual lands could be rented out for private functions by multiple groups at the same time. Shell called getting into the nighttime convention business “an interesting experiment for us.”

Visit Orlando CEO Casandra Matej said the park is “amplifying Orlando’s appeal for group meetings and conventions.”

“As Orlando gears up to unveil Epic Universe in 2025, our tourism landscape enters an exciting new chapter,” Matej said.

Epic Universe’s Celestial Park will feature three new attractions

Beyond the theme park rides, Universal is building three new hotels. Universal Stella Nova and Universal Terra Luna resorts will be next to Epic Universe while the 500-room Universal Helios Grand Hotel will be “integrated into the park like no other theme park in the world,” Woodbury said.

Company leaders say Epic Universe is poised to elevate Universal Orlando Resort into a weeklong destination for guests. Zanetti agrees. “A lot of people will now look at Universal and think, ‘I could just spend a week here without hesitation,’” he said.

All that bolsters Orlando’s reputation as vacation capital of the world. “Epic Universe is a game changer. It will create a whole new level of theme park entertainment that should help Orange County remain the number one tourist destination in North America,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said. •

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Ministry of Magic portal
Gabrielle Russon
Gabrielle Russon
Gabrielle Russon is a freelance journalist who lives in Orlando. She previously covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel, earning several statewide and regional honors for her coverage over theme park injuries, the economic challenges facing theme park workers and the pandemic’s impact on the tourism industry. A Michigan native, she is a Michigan State University graduate and has worked at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Toledo Blade, the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Elkhart Truth during her newspaper career. In her spare time, she loves visiting Orlando’s theme parks and running marathons.

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