New Universal Theme Park Planned for United Kingdom

Universal Destinations and Experiences has confirmed rumors of a significant land purchase in the United Kingdom, suggesting that Universal Studios Great Britain will soon by announced as Comcast plans expand its theme park empire into Europe, with Bedford Borough as the likely location.

This story started with Alicia Stella over at Orlando Park Stop doing some great investigative journalism–publishing financial records, details of major land purchases, domain registrations by Universal, a construction and development company purchased by Comcast, and more.

All of this points strongly to a 240 acre new Universal Great Britain theme park complex in Bedford, England on an area currently known as the Kempston Hardwick New Settlement, which has had several proposals for future commercial developments over the last few years. Lending further credence to all of this was former Imagineer Jim Shull, who indicated that this was all more than just a rumor.

Less than 24 hours later and the local newspaper where Comcast has purchased the land, The Bedford Independent, has exclusively confirmed the details of the Orlando Park Stop reporting–that Universal has indeed purchased land in the United Kingdom and is exploring as a possible Universal Great Britain theme park site.

A spokesperson from Universal Destinations & Experiences told the Bedford Independent, “We recently acquired land in Bedford [Borough] and are at the early stages of exploring its feasibility for a potential park and resort at this site.

“It will be many months before we are ready to make a decision to proceed and we look forward to engaging with all relevant stakeholders and the local community.” Universal indicated that no creative content of the park has been determined and stressed that “we are still very early in planning this potential project.” (Meaning that the movies and characters showcased in the park have yet to be finalized–but it seems highly likely that Universal Creative already has a pitch–or several–for the site.)

The company confirmed to the Bedford Independent that it is always on the lookout for new park locations around the world and with a large population, strong creative industries, thriving tourism and transportation infrastructure at the heart of Europe, the UK is an ideal destination.

Here’s a map from the Bedford Independent showing where Universal has purchased land in Kempston Hardwick:

The Universal Destinations & Experiences spokesperson told the Bedford Independent that Bedford’s connectivity to London and Europe was a factor in their decision to begin looking at the feasibility of locating Universal Great Britain park in the area.

“We support Bedford’s vision of becoming a prosperous place to live, work and visit and we take a proactive approach to partnering with local communities and stakeholders, like Bedford Borough Council, when pursuing potential projects.”

The Bedford site’s proximity to London, the Harry Potter Studios near Watford, and the cities of Oxford and Cambridge make Bedford the ideal location for tourists in the United Kingdom, according to the Universal spokesperson.

The potential Universal Great Britain site is close to public transport links to Bedford and has already been suggested as a possible site for a business park, likely making approval for a commercial development smoother.

Turning to commentary, the timing of this is really interesting one day after we published Is Universal “Beating” Disney? That article is specifically about Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World, but conceivably could be extended to encompass the broader Universal Destinations & Experiences and Disney Parks & Resorts divisions.

In so doing, it certainly looks like Comcast is being more aggressive than Disney. Whereas the latter is doing a lot of talking and blue sky daydreaming about nebulous future plans to double investment in theme parks to $60 billion over the next decade, Comcast is taking concrete next steps.

It’s not just Epic Universe in Orlando or this potential Universal Great Britain complex, either. There’s also currently the Universal Kids Resort theme park and hotel under construction Frisco, Texas. Then there’s the Universal Horror Unleashed in Las Vegas, Nevada. These are two smaller-scale projects, but they’re indicative of innovative ways that Universal is attempting to enter the attractions market without tentpole tourist destinations.

If this were a real debate, Disney could make the argument that it’s not a matter of Universal surpassing them, but playing catch-up. Disney already has two theme parks in Europe with Disneyland Paris and the Walt Disney Studios Park (well, more like 1.5 parks). Disney also has more theme parks in Asia. And Disney tried (and failed) at the regional entertainment concept back in the 1990s.

That’s a fair point, I guess, but the reality is that both Comcast and Disney have expressed desire to double-down on theme parks as of the last year or so, and only Universal has announced anything real. For its part, Disney has a zoning proposal with fake concept art (DisneylandForward) and a bunch of kinda-sorta-maybe ideas for Florida. Tropical Americas in Animal Kingdom is the closest Walt Disney World has to something tangible, and even the latest tease of that (on ABC’s 20/20) crouched it as “possible.”

Also in fairness, the Walt Disney Company is still putting out fires with its streaming services, attempting to turn a profit with Disney+ and acquire full ownership of Hulu from Comcast. Disney also needs to figure out a strategic partnership for ESPN and decide whether to unload its linear networks. Disney has a significant debt load, which is not ideal in the current interest rate environment. We’ve pointed out all of this before–and how it’s a necessary prerequisite to actually spending on theme parks.

So for now, Disney can talk a big game, but they’re probably still about a year away from being in Comcast’s position and actually doing anything. We theme park fans are an impatient bunch (I’m not getting any younger!) and Disney has already dragged its feet on countless projects, so there’s understandable frustration with this approach, even though it’s an ‘is what it is’ kinda thing.

With regard to commentary about Universal Great Britain, specifically, the project is very intriguing. One reader asked whether it’s a potential threat to Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando. My assumption would be that it is to some degree, but not a major enough one to warrant worry by either operator.

Any theme park in the backyard of Brits is going to siphon off some guests from the United Kingdom. That’s just the practical reality of this type of development, and no amount of clever menu planning for the ride roster will change that. A certain percentage of guests see “Universal” or “Disney” and view all of the parks as interchangeable, and will visit the one most convenient to them. But that already would’ve been happening to some extent–Disneyland Paris has existed in France for over 30 years.

To that point, I’d think that Universal Studios Great Britain would be more of a direct competitor to Disneyland Paris, Alton Towers, Europa Park, Efteling, and other theme parks in Europe. This will almost certainly be more of a worry for Disneyland Paris than it will be for Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando.

With that said–and I apologize for making sweeping generalizations here–I’ve met a significant number of guests from the United Kingdom over the years who would rather travel to Florida than France. This stopped being surprising long ago, because it happens so often. Granted, if someone is talking to me–either via the comments here or in-person–there’s probably a bit of selection bias going on. Nevertheless, it surprises me how many UK theme park guests would rather go all the way to Orlando.

For many of these holidaymakers, it’s because Central Florida is the theme park capital of the world, and they’re able to spend 10-14 days at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando without running out of things to do. The dynamic is not similar at Disneyland Paris, where you could probably do 4 days. It won’t be the same at Universal Great Britain, either.

Suffice to say, I would imagine that Universal Great Britain will function similarly to Disneyland Paris–expanding the market for theme parks in Europe, and putting a slight dent in numbers for Central Florida, but not a significant enough one to really move the needle. (Honestly, I think the biggest impact on international travel is the exchange rate. The strong dollar does more damage than a new theme park, and currency exchange is, obviously, subject to change.)

Another thing that’ll be interesting is what lessons Universal learns from Disneyland Paris in designing for the weather of Europe. Obviously, there will be more indoor attractions and something like World Bazaar at Tokyo Disneyland or the Arcades at Disneyland Paris to provide a covered shopping area. Something like this also exists in Universal Studios Japan over the main entrance area.

Personally, I think concerns about weather are overstated. Florida is downright miserable for several months of the year, and Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando put up incredible attendance numbers in spite of that. Sure, it’s a different kind of unpleasant–but I’ll take cold and snow over heat and humidity any day. You can always put on more layers–only so many you can remove before park security gets involved.

Joking aside, I think theme park operators with the budget and expertise of Universal or Disney can work around inclimate weather in designing their parks to keep guests comfortable. Equally as important, they have enough drawing power to attract guests year-round. Even if it’s snowy or rainy, if word gets out that crowds are low, people will bear with the weather.

One of the things that’s always intrigued me about Disneyland Paris is maintenance. The park has always had woes in this regard, which are often attributed to neglect. That’s certainly part of it, but I think it might also be fair to say the original design was ridiculously upkeep-intensive, as if the Imagineers designing it were making a park for Southern California rather than France, where it rains and snows. (Designing for SoCal no matter the actual location seems like an ongoing issue.)

There are probably a lot of ways Disneyland Paris can serve as a cautionary tale, and while I won’t pretend to be an expert on Great Britain, the proposed site in Bedford Borough seems very savvy. For its convenient and accessible location, guest demographics, and the lower likelihood of the project being met with intense backlash. Of course, people are alike all over, so there will undoubtedly be some locals who fight this–you’d be hard-pressed to find a development project anywhere that won’t be fought by some subset of the population–but it should have a smoother overall path and higher likelihood of local embrace.

At the very least, we wouldn’t expect Brits to dub Universal Great Britain as a “cultural chernobyl.” It should be a fun project to watch! We hope all of these announcements from Universal create a greater sense of urgency within the Walt Disney Company to stop talking and actually start doing something. Even if streaming, debt, etc. will take another year to sort out, there’s little reason why plans can’t be firmed up and concrete announcements made, so shovel can actually meet soil in late 2024 or 2025 when Disney is ready to start spending again on Parks & Resorts.

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YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think of the potential Universal Great Britain theme park complex? Excited for this addition? Think it’ll be a competitor to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, or mostly Disneyland Paris and other major theme parks in Europe? What potential lands and/or attractions would you like to see Universal build in the United Kingdom? Think this will be a worthy addition to Universal’s theme parks portfolio? Expect Disney to “respond” with a big announcement of its own? Any questions? We love hearing from readers, so please share any other thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!

15 Responses to “New Universal Theme Park Planned for United Kingdom”
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