Skift Take

Universal is on the offensive, and it's looking to England for its next possible theme park location.

Universal Studios is looking to England for its next theme park. The attractions operator has bought land in Bedford, 45 minutes outside of London, and may build its next big project there.  

The company said it is assessing the viability of a new theme park resort in the United Kingdom, with a decision only expected after several months of stakeholder and community engagement. A Universal Destinations & Experiences spokesperson confirmed to Theme Park Insider’s Robert Niles it had bought the land.

No value for the purchased land has been disclosed. Orlando Park Stop, a theme park publication, initially reported Universal’s parent company, Comcast, had spent $271 million on “land acquisition for potential theme park expansion opportunities” in its third-quarter financial disclosure in October. Still, it was unconfirmed if this land acquisition was the Bedford location.

Universal told Theme Park Insider it views Bedford’s transport links to London and Europe as strategic, with half of the UK’s population within a two-hour travel distance. 

The Bedford location is, however, an hour outside East London’s Stratford, which was meant to be the new location for the Sphere Entertainment Company’s second Sphere venue. However, after a lengthy five-year consultation process, the Sphere project was halted in November.

London’s mayor Sadiq Khan turned down the venue due to concerns about light pollution, increased electricity usage, and a need for more sustainable green energy solutions. The project also posed potential risks to heritage sites in the Stratford area.  

If the Universal theme park goes ahead, it will be its most significant move into Europe. Universal’s potential entry into the UK theme park market would vie for the attention of enthusiasts who currently have access to several existing attractions:  

  • Merlin Entertainments: They lead the domestic market with popular attractions like Legoland Windsor, Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Chessington World of Adventures, Madame Tussauds, and the London Eye.
  • Warner Bros.: They have the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter.
  • Disney Parks: Disneyland Paris has been a drawcard for British travelers since its opening in 1992.

Global Theme Park Competition

“Universal has brought out the heavy weapons,” said former Disney Imagineer Jim Shull

Shull, a Walt Disney Imagineer for 33 years, formed part of the executive Walt Disney Imagineering team that opened 8 of the 12 Disney parks and resorts worldwide. 

Shull called Universal’s move to open a park in the UK a smart, strategically sound expansion that taps into an established market without significantly impacting existing travel patterns to other theme park destinations like Universal in Orlando.

It further tied into Comcast’s ambitions for its theme parks to be a growth engine.

The land acquired for the theme park, formerly an industrial estate, is ideally situate for development, close to Luton Airport. Shull suggested that Universal’s expected the large-scale investment would be positively received given the current UK economy.

He doubted it would suffer the same fate as the Sphere venue, which would have been closer to London and criticized for its proposed bright exterior lighting.

Shull said the expansion highlighted a broader competitive landscape between Universal and Disney in the global theme park industry.

“They [Universal] have made impressive strides recently, opening Universal Studios in Beijing, China. They are building the Universal Epic Universe, their fourth theme park in Orlando, Florida. They have announced and are building the Universal Kids Park, which will be in Frisco, Texas.”

In addition to their “successful play on Halloween in Orlando and Hollywood”, said Shull, the Universal Horror Unleashed will be Universal’s first year-round horror experience in Las Vegas.

*This article has been updated to include commentary from former Disney Imagineer Jim Shull.


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Tags: attractions, europe, experiences, theme parks, tours and activities, universal studios

Photo credit: The Universal Studios Plaza in Orlando, Florida. Guneet Jassal / Unsplash

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