Looks like we’ll have to wait even longer to visit the Mushroom Kingdom. Yesterday Comcast, the owners of the Universal Studios theme parks, announced that the construction of Epic Universe, its third Florida theme park that was originally scheduled to open in 2023, has been indefinitely postponed.
Universal hadn’t released much official information about Epic Universe, other than that it was being built on a parcel of land about five miles away from the rest of Universal Orlando Resort, and that it would be one of two American homes of Super Nintendo World, which was scheduled to open in Japan this summer. Based on concept art and internal rumors, it’s believed Epic Universe would also have distinct lands based on a variety of popular franchises, including How to Train Your Dragon and the classic Universal Monsters. It was also rumored to have attractions based on the Fantastic Beasts series, a spinoff of Harry Potter. Due to the pandemic, construction was halted and its opening was pushed back to 2024 in April. With no end in sight for the coronavirus, though, the company will now pause all plans for the new park.
This is how bad the pandemic has been for the theme park industry. In the second quarter of 2020, revenue for Universal’s theme park division fell 94 percent year-over-year. A division that took in almost $1.5 billion in the second quarter of 2019 only made $87 million the same quarter in 2020. Of course most of the company’s parks were closed in the second quarter, with only its two parks in Orlando and its Japanese park reopening in June. Attendance has been extremely light across the board for Florida theme parks since reopening, and it doesn’t seem like any relief will be coming soon, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise and upcoming events like Halloween Horror Nights are cancelled.
The losses have also lead to multiple layoffs within Universal’s parks division. Hundreds of employees were laid off in June, while others were furloughed or took salary reductions. More employees were laid off today, with reports that Epic Universe projects were notably hit hard by the latest round. This comes right as federal CARES Act unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of July, and in a state with one of the worst-run unemployment programs in the nation.
Theme parks, once a highly profitable division for companies like Comcast and Disney, have become giant money pits during the pandemic. Even with Universal Orlando reopening in early June, and Walt Disney World reopening five weeks later, both companies are losing money on the parks every day. With the future of the pandemic, travel, and all of society still very much uncertain, building a massively expensive new theme park is clearly a hard thing for Universal to justify. Hopefully this is a temporary setback, but theme park history is full of grandiose plans and elaborate projects that get derailed through unforeseen financial difficulties and budget cuts. Epic Universe could be poised to join infamous parks-that-never-were like Disney’s WestCOT and Disney’s America. And worse than that, more people are out of work during one of the worst moments for employment in our history.
Update: Gabrielle Russon of the Orlando Sentinel has more details on today’s Universal layoffs.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.