Universal is defying conventional wisdom about the theme park industry with its latest expansion plans.
Earlier this month, Universal Parks & Resorts announced that it would build a new, family-focused theme park on 97 acres of land that it has obtained in Frisco, Texas, just north of Dallas. Universal’s smallest theme park to date is Universal Studios Singapore, which stands on just 49 acres in the Resorts World Sentosa integrated resort complex. But the Texas park will not occupy the entire property, as the site also must accommodate backstage areas and parking and will contain room for a hotel resort and potential expansion, Universal said.
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For context, Universal’s upcoming Epic Universe theme park in Orlando will occupy about 110 acres on a 750-acre site. But Universal is not building its Texas park for the mass market to which Epic Universe is designed to appeal. Universal said that the Texas project will be focused on families with small children — “a younger generation of Universal fans,” as one Universal executive said.
That might make sense if there were some baby boom of youngsters out there whose parents were looking for somewhere to take them. But birth rates have been declining for years in the United States, with many people of child-bearing age struggling to pay basic expenses, much less being able to start families and take them on theme park vacations.
Demographic change has been driving parks to introduce food and wine festivals and other attractions and programming designed to appeal to older audiences. In Texas, Universal now seeks to replicate Legoland’s business model by building a smaller park in an affluent suburb of a major metro area and sharply targeting young families in that market. It’s telling that Universal has chosen Texas for this project, as Texas is the only state among the top four most-populated in the U.S. not to have a Legoland theme park.
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But will the market accept a downsized, family-focused Universal theme park, given what it is has come to expect from Universal in Hollywood and Orlando? That might be a moot question, should Universal choose not to use the “Universal Studios” branding in Texas. The concept art that Universal released for the project shows a lot of DreamWorks Animation properties, prompting some observers to speculate that Universal will brand the park to DreamWorks instead. That would be a new brand in the U.S. theme park industry, allowing Universal to set expectations for it.
Rival Disney in the early 1980s toyed with the idea of building regionally focused “Mini Magic Kingdoms” around the country. And it did later expand into the regional entertainment market with its now-closed Disney Quest centers. So this would not be the first time that one of the Big Two in the U.S. theme park industry tried to step into other markets. Yet Disney Quest ultimately failed, and Disney chose to expand abroad rather than carve its domestic market with smaller parks.
Underdogs rarely upset champions by playing the favorite’s game plan. By trying something different, perhaps Universal will find an advantage that allows it to further challenge Disney’s current lead in the family entertainment.