Source: Theme Park Insider.
By Robert Niles: The Orange County (Florida) Commission voted unanimously this evening to approve a proposal to build the world’s tallest roller coaster on Orlando’s International Drive. Neighbor Universal Orlando had fought against the proposed Skyplex development, an opposition that become more interesting when news broke during the commission hearing that Universal has obtained an option to buy hundreds of acres of land near I-Drive.
— GrowthSpotter (@orlandogrowth) December 1, 2015
The nearly $500 million Skyplex development would include a 570-foot-tall “polercoaster,” a roller coaster that wraps up, down, and around a centering tower. The county’s planning and zoning board voted in October not to recommend the project, fueling a massive public relations campaign by both sides leading up to today’s vote.
Concept art courtesy the developer
Universal’s opposition to the project, which included direct mail campaigns and behind-the-scenes lobbying by Universal officials, seemed a bit puzzling given Universal’s growing strength in the travel market, especially relative to what is essentially a single-gimmick project. The world’s (______) coaster provides a marketing draw only until someone else builds a coaster that is taller, faster, steeper, or whatever else-er. Ultimately, long-term success in the themed attraction and amusement business goes to those who create uniquely desirable experiences, not temporary record-holders. If Skyplex manages to deliver that kind of experience, then it might become a long-term attraction for the Orlando region. If all it delivers is its record, however, it will be a draw only until someone else Las Vegas or Dubai builds a taller tower coaster.
So why would Universal care? While math models suggested that the coaster tower would be visible from a few points inside Islands of Adventure, its visible size would be trivial compared with other sights within the park. And there’s no way that a single coaster is going to make any dent in Universal’s annual attendance. (Let’s pause to note SeaWorld executives cringing.)
But what if Universal’s opposition was not based upon a conflict with its current operations, but some future plans? Universal lobbyist John McReynolds (the new chairman of industry organization IAAPA, FWIW), told the commission that Universal’s opposition was not based in any fear of competition, but in a desire for reasonable community development standards along I-Drive. Universal is closing Wet n’ Wild and plans to redevelop that property. And today’s report of a Universal option on hundreds of acres along Universal Blvd. provides the resort with another option for development.
The Universal Blvd. property (which runs behind I-Drive), would lie in the shadow of the 570-foot Skyplex, creating a design challenge for Universal if it sought to create a environment free from outside visual intrusions within that property. (Such as, oh, say… a third theme park.) And if Universal’s designers could hide the Skyplex tower, the precedent that its approval establishes would free any other developer to build a tower of similar or taller height in the neighborhood.
(Pausing again for a history lesson… And that potential for intrusive neighboring development is why Walt Disney didn’t buy that land near the intersection of I-4 and Florida’s Turnpike that ultimately became Universal Orlando, opting instead to amass tens of thousands of acres down the road instead.)
The Orlando Sentinel’s Sandra Pedicini tweeted that the Orange County commissioners were told of Universal’s land option before today’s vote. The Sand Lake Road complex, located north of the Orange County Conventional Center and totally 474 acres, is more than enough for another park. (Universal Studios Florida is 107 acres, for comparison.) But its location away from the rest of the resort would create additional development challenges for Universal, as it would not have any easy transportation link between the properties.
Ironically, this is land that Universal used to own. In 2003, Universal’s previous owner, Vivendi, sold 1,800 acres that it had acquired along Sand Lake Road from Lockheed Martin. Universal would be reacquiring part of that property if it exercised the option it now owns on the 400-plus acres.