Here’s a sign that the world is finally healing: Epic Universe, the upcoming Universal theme park whose construction was indefinitely delayed last summer due to the pandemic, is back on track. Universal announced the news this morning, stating that construction will resume immediately, but with a caveat that it’ll take a good while to get the project back up to full-speed.
Epic Universe was announced in August 2019 with pretty high stakes. It was going to offer “an entirely new level of experiences that will forever redefine theme park entertainment,” according to Universal. It also represented what Comcast Chairman Brian L. Roberts called “the single-largest investment Comcast NBC Universal has made in its theme park business.” Roberts reaffirmed the scope of that investment in today’s release, which noted that the new park will eventually add 14,000 permanent jobs to Central Florida. Orlando could certainly use that influx of new jobs—it’s been hit especially hard by the pandemic, as its main industry, tourism, has almost entirely dried up over the last year.
The new park is expected to feature different themed areas based on various popular media properties, much like the two theme parks that Universal currently operates in Orlando. One of those lands was confirmed by Universal in early 2020, with Epic Universe being revealed as the official Florida home of Super Nintendo World. Other IP rumored to get its own areas at Epic Universe have included the classic Universal monsters, How to Train Your Dragon, and the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts. None of these are official, though, and the only concept art released by the company has been intentionally vague. With the park still several years off—it was originally scheduled to open in 2024, but with construction paused for almost a year it’s a solid bet that date will have to be pushed back.
Given Nintendo’s cross-generational appeal, Super Nintendo World makes a fine headliner. It’s already open at Universal Japan, and it looks fantastic; the first American version is expected at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2022 or 2023. (Again, it’s unknown how the pandemic has impacted that timeline.) Some of the other long-rumored areas at Epic Universe seem like curious projects, though. With the muted response to Fantastic Beasts—and the increasing controversy over J.K. Rowling’s transphobia—it’ll be interesting to see how Universal tries to expand on its Harry Potter cash cow; it’s hard to imagine Epic Universe not having something related to the Wizarding World, but at this point it’s hard to see a Fantastic Beasts land making the same impact as Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Epic Universe is that it’ll be the first major theme park built from scratch after the newfound focus on immersion ushered in by the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Projects like Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley at Universal, and Disney’s Pandora—The World of Avatar and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, have rewritten the rules for theme parks. Instead of evoking a specific theme or atmosphere the way Disney’s Adventureland and Tomorrowland do, this new breed of themed attraction tries to fully immerse you in the setting of whatever media property it’s based on. When you’re at Galaxy’s Edge or the Wizarding World you aren’t supposed to feel like you’re at a theme park based on Star Wars or Harry Potter; the goal is to make you feel like you’re in the worlds of Star Wars or Harry Potter. Epic Universe’s goal is to take that commitment to the next level; as Tom Williams, Chairman and CEO of Universal Parks said when the park was originally announced, Epic Universe “will build on everything we have done and become the most immersive and innovative theme park we have ever created.”
Epic Universe’s delay wasn’t unexpected, as the pandemic quickly decimated the tourism industry. That delay was revealed just a few weeks after Universal’s Florida parks had reopened with a greatly reduced capacity; its California theme park remains closed. Even with the delay, a third Universal park in Florida seemed inevitable, but it’s a little surprising—and very encouraging—to see construction resume on this one so quickly. Theme park history is littered with exciting projects that were announced with breathless hype only to gradually wither away or get derailed by unexpected turmoil and never actually get built; fortunately Epic Universe won’t become one of those big theme park “what ifs.”
As always, we’ll have more on Epic Universe—and Universal’s other upcoming projects—in the weeks and months to come.