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Universal Pandas to North Texas city
New theme park announced along with new horror experience in Vegas
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On the heels of a news deluge from Disney parks, Universal released its own geyser of announcements a few days ago. Surprising virtually everybody, the company revealed that it has set its sights on a new theme park resort to be located in Frisco, Texas, a medium-sized city about 30 miles outside of Dallas. With five theme park resorts around the world, it wouldn’t be Universal’s first rodeo. But at a modest size roughly one quarter of its typical parks and a target audience of families with young children, this would be a markedly different concept.
On the same day it shared that news, Universal also announced that it would be developing a standalone Halloween Horror Nights-like experience in Las Vegas–as if Sin City weren’t already scary enough.
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According to info released by Universal, the company purchased a 97-acre parcel for the project. Most of its other parks are about 100 acres. It’s likely the Texas park will be closer to 25 acres with the balance of the land used for parking, back-of-house operations, and a 300-room hotel that is planned just outside the main entrance. Some of the property would be reserved for future expansion.
“It’s a scale appropriate for our young family audience,” said Page Thompson, president of new ventures at Universal Parks & Resorts, at a press conference announcing the project in Frisco. “Even though it’s smaller in size, the quality and level will be worthy of the Universal name.”
While Universal has intellectual properties and a collection of rides and attractions that appeal to a wide audience, it generally aims for an older demographic than its chief rival, Disney. Since it doesn’t shy away from extreme thrills (Jurassic World VelociCoaster anyone?), and its over-the-top attractions invariably include fiery, explosive, in-your-face effects, its parks are often seen as the places for princesses and pirates to go when it’s time for them to hang up their tiaras and eyepatches. The Texas park, however, would aim squarely at the kiddos that are Disney’s sweet spot.
“We have a portfolio of terrific attractions that appeal to young families,” said Mark Woodbury, chairman and CEO of Universal Parks & Resorts at the press conference, although neither he nor other company officials divulged any details. Woodbury did, however, introduce a brief video which indicates what he and his team have in mind. It featured existing attractions and characters that draw on younger-skewing intellectual properties such as Kung Fu Panda, Trolls, Jurassic World, Madagascar, and How to Train Your Dragon.
The CEO also shared concept art (see the image near the top of the page) that hints at some of the same franchises, many of which fall under the DreamWorks umbrella. The rendering shows what appears to be a roller coaster tucked into one corner of the park, some spinning rides, a lagoon with an unusually long boat ride that appears to snake through most of the lands, and large show buildings that seem designed for indoor attractions. If Universal aspires to build a regional park with the same level of quality as its destination resorts, the Texas project could include some sophisticated E-Ticket rides in those buildings.
It’s important not to read too much into the concept art. While it may, in fact, provide a fair representation of the park that ultimately gets built, it is just that: concept art. Plans often evolve, sometimes dramatically, as parks get developed and take shape. In fact, both Thompson and Woodbury were careful to talk about the project as a “proposed” park as if it might not be a completely done deal. While there is a long history of planned theme parks that fizzle out, given Universal’s stature and track record, it’s a good bet that this project will move forward.
Universal would seem to be jumping on an industry trend to build smaller “micro” parks that might take a few hours to experience as opposed to an entire day or more that most visitors spend at larger parks. Many of the more compact parks are geared to the same small-fry audience that Universal envisions for its Texas project. These include Peppa Pig Theme Park at Legoland’s Florida resort and Sesame Place in California, both of which opened last year. Tickets are often less at these parks than at bigger ones. Prices to enter the Peppa Pig park start at $34, for example. Micro parks that will be opening over the next few months include Mattel Adventure Park in Arizona and Katmandu Park in Punta Cana.
No timeline was given for the Texas project, but it’s likely that it would take about four years to develop. That might mean it could open in 2027, two years after Universal opens its massive Epic Universe park now under construction in Orlando. It’s likely that Universal is dipping its toes into the small, regional park pool in Texas with the intent of exporting the concept to other markets.
Universal is exporting another one of its concepts, Halloween Horror Nights, to Las Vegas. The company announced that it will be developing a horror experience as part of the AREA15 entertainment district. Like HHN, Universal will draw on its extensive catalogue of classic horror properties, which includes Dracula, The Mummy, and the Bride of Frankenstein, as well as modern-day films, for the project.
As with the Texas park announcement, details were sparse for what might be coming to Vegas. Universal did indicate that the experience would take inspiration from HHN, which features elaborate, highly themed walkthrough mazes as well as scare zones and shows. The content will be continuously updated, the company says, which might mean that it will change out the themes for its featured experiences on a regular basis.
Every year, HHN, which is presented during the fall Halloween season at Universal’s parks in both Hollywood and Orlando, offers a completely new lineup of haunts. For 2022, mazes featured John Carpenter’s Halloween, pop singer The Weeknd, and The Wolfman along with other members of Universal’s monsters menagerie. The Hollywood park incorporated Jordan Peele’s popular film, Nope. While virtually every park offers a Halloween event, Universal presents arguably the industry’s biggest, best, and most popular haunts.
The Vegas attraction will be open year-round. During the day, it will offer dining spaces that will transform into “haunting bars and eateries by night,” according to Universal. That likely means it will be a 21+ experience in the evening. Perhaps the haunts will have a more mature, “what happens in Vegas”edge after sundown as well. There will also be seasonal events. (Might gory Easter-themed haunts be in the works? I always thought that candy-addled bunny was kinda creepy.)
AREA15 has proved quite popular. Among its compendium of offerings are Meow Wolf’s trippy Omega Art as well as VR, AR, and immersive cinema experiences. Universal’s as-yet-unnamed attraction will occupy 110,000 square feet and will be part of a 20-acre AREA15 expansion. No opening date has been announced.
Do you live in or near Texas? Might you want to visit a Universal park aimed at families with young children? What do you think about Universal’s expansion into regional parks? And what are your thoughts about the company’s plans to cook up its recipe for horror experiences in Vegas?