The Monthly Theme Park Thread is Branching Out

Hey, did you folks know that there are theme parks out there run by companies other than Disney?

If you’re reading this, you almost certainly did, but I have to admit that you sure wouldn’t know it from just browsing this column. And I mean it when I say that’s something I’ve been trying to be better about, even if being better about it necessarily means covering parks or subjects that I have little-to-no firsthand experience with. Luckily for me, Universal Parks and Resorts all but forced my hand on that matter last month, when they made some pretty groundbreaking news.

On January 11, the Comcast-owned company revealed plans to expand their current slate of U.S. operations with the addition of two new tourist destinations. That sentence taken alone is noteworthy, yes, but not entirely unexpected on its face. No, what makes this news exciting is the location of these two new experiences: they will not be built on Universal’s California property, where the ribbon-cutting for the first American version of Super Nintendo World will occur in just two weeks. Nor will they be in Orlando, where the 750-acre Epic Universe park, first announced in August 2019, will open its gates mid-2025.1

No, if all goes according to plan, these new developments will bring the laughs, thrills, and chills of Universal IP to… Las Vegas, NV and Frisco, TX.

Of these two projects, the Las Vegas one is definitely the less surprising. Coming to the city’s Area15 entertainment district, the 110,000 square foot space will be an immersive horror experience, essentially a scaled-down version of the company’s hugely popular Halloween Horror Nights celebrations, now running year-round.

Where the gauntlet has well and truly been thrown down, however, is in Frisco. We currently know very little about this new park beyond the fact that it will be geared towards families with children, but that alone is enough to read this as a clear shot across the bow of Universal’s mouse-eared competition. It has often been asked, both internally and externally, why Disney never committed to opening a third resort anywhere in the United States. For a while, they simply appeared unable to answer the key question of placement, but as more time passed and the company’s approach to business changed, the idea itself began to sound less and less feasible.2

By being the proverbial ‘first movers’ here, Universal have given themselves the advantage of choosing their next battleground, sending the ball squarely into Disney’s court. Even the specification of this as a family park could be read as a veiled dig at the Mouse House’s current business model, focused as it is on fancy, Instagrammable food, limited edition merchandise, and quality-of-life upcharges (all things that children famously love). Whether Disney responds, and how, remains to be seen, but it’s something that I and many others will surely be watching with great interest.

…Aw, crap, I somehow found a way to make this about Disney again, didn’t I? Well, I did say I’m still trying.

Feel free to use this space to discuss all things theme- or amusement park!

Optional Discussion Questions: Would you travel to Texas to visit a theme park, or make time for one if you were already going to be there? What about Las Vegas?

And in the spirit of Groundhog Day yesterday: How many days in a row could you spend at a park without losing your mind? Which one would break you down the slowest/fastest?