July 22, 2024

Is Universal Making a Classic “Crowdpocalypse” Mistake with Epic Universe?

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Universal Orlando will reportedly only sell admission to Epic Universe as part of multi-day tickets at first, with one of day of the visits available to the new third theme park and no Park Hopping.




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Universal Orlando will reportedly only sell admission to Epic Universe as part of multi-day tickets at first, with one of day of the visits available to the new third theme park and no Park Hopping. This shares details of the rumored policy, along with our commentary about the potential for this to be yet another classic “crowdpocalypse” blunder from theme park operators.

There’s a lot of hype around Epic Universe, and for good reason. It’s Universal Orlando Resort’s third theme park, just down the road from Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, as well as Volcano Bay Water Park. Epic Universe will transport guests to expansive worlds featuring more than 50 experiences that include attractions, entertainment, dining and shopping to create an unforgettable adventure located at Universal Orlando Resort.

Universal’s Epic Universe theme park looks amazing and is sure to be hugely popular in the long term thanks to lands based on Nintendo, Harry Potter, How to Train Your Dragon, and Monsters. The park is likely a game-changer for how people visit Central Florida and allocate their time between Universal and Walt Disney World. These are topics we’ve covered at length from the Disney perspective, most recently in How Will Walt Disney World “Compete” with Universal’s Epic Universe in 2025? and before that in Is Universal “Beating” Walt Disney World? (Those are air quotes in both titles, for what it’s worth.)

Given all of the hype and excitement about Epic Universe, it should be no surprise that Universal Orlando is attempting to take advantage and is planning on strategically selling admission to the new park. According to Attractions Magazine, Universal Orlando has distributed ticketing information for Epic Universe to third-party partners.

At first, I was skeptical that Universal would be releasing ticket info for Epic Universe so early. I wasn’t alone in this sentiment, as many others on social media questioned the legitimacy of the info, which was then corroborated by at least a dozen different travel agents. Highly credible Universal insider Alicia Stella also suggested the info was accurate, while also adding key clarifying details. At this point, the Epic Universe ticket details are either legit…or the most elaborate ruse ever.

Anyway, when ticket sales first launch, guests must purchase a multi-day Universal Orlando ticket package with a 3-day minimum in order to visit Epic Universe. No matter the ticket duration, all ticket types will offer a single day at Epic Universe and will not include Park Hopping to or from the new park. At product launch, there will be no option to purchase a single-day Epic Universe ticket by itself.

Guests will be able to otherwise customize tickets, including which of Universal Orlando’s other parks they’ll visit–Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and/or Volcano Bay water park. You’ll be able to Park Hop among those parks (but, again, not Epic Universe), and so forth. Basically, tickets will be exactly like they are today, but with a “bonus” day at Epic Universe, if that helps you visualize the options.

International visitors will have the option to purchase a new ticket type at product launch, which will grant access to 14 days at Universal Orlando’s existing gates and one (1) day at Epic Universe. Yes, you read that correctly. Two weeks at the other parks, plus a single day at Epic Universe. (Again, this is basically what already exists, plus a “bonus” day at Epic Universe.)

According to one of the screenshots shared via Attractions Magazine, Universal intends to “Manage capacity by selling only date-specific Admission products.” Additionally, “Universal Epic Universe products will launch with multi-day tickets for 3 or more days with a 1-day limit to Universal Epic Universe for those planning vacations well in advance. Universal intends to expand product offerings to single and multi-day tickets including Universal Epic Universe in a phased approach based on availability.” (Emphasis added.)

We’ve bolded that last line because it’s the pertinent part. A lot of “The Discourse” about the report from Attractions Magazine seems to be misconstruing the product launch of tickets for Epic Universe with the opening of Epic Universe. Those two dates are most definitely not the same. While there’s no indication as to when Epic Universe tickets will go on sale, it’s presumably pretty soon if this is being distributed to third parties.

Meanwhile, the official opening of the park itself is still almost a year away. (Well, a lot less depending upon whether you’re counting the unofficial preview window, which will reportedly last multiple months.) Regardless, the point is that Universal Orlando is going to start by selling multi-day tickets and then scale up from there. Meaning that single and multi-day tickets for Epic Universe will be sold at some point prior to opening; I guess unless this initial offering sells so well that they don’t need to offer anything else (it won’t).

Turning to commentary, it’s unsurprising that Universal Orlando is going to both limit attendance and attempt to use Epic Universe as a means of getting guests to spend more time in their existing gates. There are multiple goals to this approach. In theory, it should increase Universal Orlando’s average length of stay, make guests more likely to book on-site hotels, prevent attendance cannibalization from Universal’s existing gates, and getting people to spend their park days at Universal Orlando rather than Walt Disney World.

It also controls crowds at Epic Universe and pushes people to the existing gates. It means attendance could be higher at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure than Epic Universe, as there will be more park ticket days in circulation for the existing gates than there are for Epic Universe. Especially once you factor in the outstanding Annual Passes that do not cover Epic Universe.

Again, all of this is very much in theory. It will not work out this way in practice, and Universal Orlando undoubtedly knows as much. Nevertheless, it’s savvy strategy–and we give Universal kudos if they can manage to thread the needle and pull this off without and unintended negative consequences (see below).

While Universal Orlando’s existing gates will undoubtedly see a boost from Epic Universe, it’s nonsense to think that international guests are going to spend a combined 14 days at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure and only 1 day at Epic Universe. Longer duration tickets are cheaper for a reason–wasted days are built into the price, and international visitors are not expected to spend every single full day in the parks. And most don’t.

With these tickets, there are a few possibilities as to what will happen. The first is that waste will continue, and worsen. That much seems like a given. It’s entirely conceivable that attendance is higher at Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida on any given day next summer. Not just because they have more admission in circulation–but also because the capacity of the existing gates will be higher. But IoA and USF aren’t going to have triple the attendance on any day, nevermind 14x it.

Another possibility is that this will be what convinces fence-sitting vacation planners to stay on-site at Universal Orlando, instead of Walt Disney World with Epic Universe as an add-on. We’ve heard from some people in this group who are anxious about locking in their Epic Universe tickets (worried it’ll sell out quickly), so this is also a given to some extent.

If I were a Universal diehard who was dead-set on being at Epic Universe for opening day, I’d definitely be buying one of those 3-day tickets and just figuring it’s the surcharge of being there to experience history–the first new major theme park in the United States in the 2000s. Heck, I’m not a Universal diehard and that would be a huge waste given that I’ll presumably have an UOAP then, and I’m still considering it!

The calculus there is that the biggest fans–even those with Annual Passes–won’t want to gamble and miss out on opening day. So some of them will pay extra just for an early guarantee of being there for Epic Universe. (For whatever it’s worth, I probably will be willing to gamble–especially since I suspect lengthy previews are a near-certainty.)

Another possibility is that this approach backfires. That planners see Epic Universe “locked” (air quotes) behind bundles with Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, and find these undesirable for their vacations. That they want to spend a couple of days at Epic Universe, and perhaps only a single day (combined) at the two existing gates.

Alternatively, the more casual vacation planners see these ticket packages and reach the conclusion that this is being done due to crowds. That crowds are going to be so bad at Epic Universe that this is Universal Orlando’s only option.

Even if they don’t think this immediately, the seed will likely be planted eventually as Universal’s most fervent fans defend this decision, claiming it’s “the only way” to control crowds and prevent chaos. (If you think Disney apologists are bad about carrying water for the company, just wait until you encounter the Universal fandom, which is almost entirely uncritical. Perhaps it’s the underdog mentality?)

All of this might seem like a stretch, and perhaps it is. But when first seeing the details of Epic Universe ticketing, I got an immediate flashback to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland. The opening summer for that new land was incredibly slow, and that was largely due to the drumbeat of messaging from the company itself and fan community about crowds.

We worked ourselves into a collective tizzy over a “crowdpocalypse” scenario, and the exact opposite happened as result. Fearing multi-hour lines and crazy congestion, fans stayed home–delaying visits until crowds died down. The first few months were dead, and the time when people expected things to “die down” were crazy busy. We’re not pointing fingers–we played an active role in that.

The seed back then was planted by Bob Iger making an offhand comment, jokingly boasting that no marketing would be necessary for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge–that he could just tweet “it’s open” and that would be enough to pack the park during the opening season. That was followed by persistent messaging from Disneyland that you’d need reservations to access the new land (among other policies & protocol). With that came breathless speculation among fans and commentators of the “crowdpocalypse” played a role in scaring guests away. (We cover all of this and much more in our Why Are Star Wars Land Crowds So Low? post back from Summer 2019.)

While that was at Disneyland, history essentially repeated itself with the launch of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge a few months later at Walt Disney World. Lessons were learned about overly aggressive messaging, but it was already too late. The first few months were among the deadest we’ve ever seen at Walt Disney World, with the ‘Extra, Extra Magic Hours’ being gloriously uncrowded (and totally unnecessary). On both coasts, crowds arrived in full force by the holiday season…and didn’t let up until the closures of March 2020.

The same thing has happened this year at Tokyo DisneySea to a much lesser extent in the opening month of Fantasy Springs, as the park hasn’t been that busy and tickets have not sold out as a result of overly-strict access limitations to the new port-of-call. It’s difficult to predict how that’ll play out, but I’d likewise be inclined to predict lagged demand for Fantasy Springs, with October through December 2024 being much busier than June through August.

Obviously, differences abound between what Disney did and what Universal is doing, especially since Universal hasn’t even (officially) started doing anything yet! One notable distinction is that Disney started hammering this home 3-6 months in advance, whereas Universal Orlando is starting almost a full year out. If anything, that provides even more time for the internet to “do its thing” and for this to get out of hand.

On a positive note, Universal Orlando also has a long enough runway to address and avoid such issues. Whereas Disney actively played into fears about the “crowdpocalypse,” there’s still time for Universal to allay these concerns. Not only that, but the reputations of the Disney and Universal are already wildly divergent on this front. Universal benefits here from being more laid back and its diehard fans having a greater tolerance for overcrowding (see Halloween Horror Nights).

Not only that, but it’s likely that this multi-day ticket release with the single “bonus” day at Epic Universe is simply step one, an overly aggressive one to capture those aforementioned anxious planners and lock them into longer duration tickets and hotel packages even though it’ll be wholly unnecessary.

At some point–presumably long before Epic Universe opens–step two will involve single and multi-day Epic Universe ticket options that are more relaxed and (hopefully) aren’t exorbitantly priced. We’re also hopeful that there will be ways for existing Annual Passholders to upgrade or otherwise access the new park.

It’s also possible that Universal will want to recoup some of the billions of dollars it has invested in Epic Universe as quickly as possible, and will take advantage of the hype to the greatest extent possible with more pricey packages, tickets, early access, etc.

If Universal does go that route, it’ll also alienate a lot of potential guests. If what we’ve heard is any indication, many people are excited about Epic Universe because they view Universal as the “anti-Disney” of sorts, which is to say that Universal supposedly values guests more, treats its fans well, charges fair prices, makes visiting simpler, and so forth. (We’ve warned you repeatedly–Universal is no different than Disney. What’s different is demand. Once Universal has that–and they should with Epic Universe in both the medium and long term–they’re going to do the same things.)

Again, there hasn’t been a new theme park in the United States of this scale and scope in the 2000s. This means that there’s a lot of excitement–and plenty of consumers are willing to shell out big bucks to be among the first to experience it in its opening season. It also means there are a lot of unknowns in terms of demand, previews, and pretty much everything!

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and even Fantasy Springs, as great as it is, are highly imperfect comparisons. Both of those were only new lands, whereas Epic Universe is a whole new park. It’s impossible to say whether tourists will thus have more of a tolerance for crowds and/or the unknown, or less. The risk-reward calculus and stakes are totally different.

One thing about which we’re certain is that there is no question about opening day of Epic Universe or even opening week. The ‘supply’ of diehard Universal fans (and theme park enthusiasts, more generally) who have a tolerance for crowds and are willing to endure whatever to experience a brand-new park is sufficiently high that opening day/week are not going to be slow.

This is more about what comes after, during the opening season–especially if it ends up being June, July, August and September, which are now slower months for theme parks. (I’m very confident that, as with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Epic Universe will be slammed from October through December 2025.)

Ultimately, every move Universal makes to limit attendance at Epic Universe will, paradoxically, bring crowd concerns more front of mind for many potential guests who otherwise wouldn’t have thought about it. Why spend big bucks to visit in 2025 when the options are limited and it’s going to be insane? Why not wait until late 2025 or even 2026 when things have calmed down? (There are sure to be a large number of fans who hold off and double-dip on Epic Universe and Halloween Horror Nights!)

Again, all of this is speculative and for the sake of conversation as one of many possibilities. Universal hasn’t announced anything at this point–so there’s obviously plenty of time for perceptions to change. But it should be somewhat telling that there are already so many strong reactions to what is only rumor (albeit highly credible).

That suggests every official policy Universal Orlando releases related to Epic Universe will be heavily scrutinized by fans (and haters). All of this will have an impact on potential guest perception and likelihood of visiting in Summer 2025. Universal undoubtedly knows that its approach is under a microscope. Hopefully they’ve analyzed what Disney did wrong with the launch of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and have learned from those mistakes. It’ll be interesting to see if that ends up being the case, and the optics around Epic Universe suggest it’ll be easy and approachable to visit…or doom and gloom fears of another “crowdpocalypse” win out.

Need trip planning tips and comprehensive advice for your visit to Central Florida? Make sure to read our Universal Orlando Planning Guide for everything about Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. Also check out our Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Guide for everything about those parks, resorts, restaurants, and so much more. For regular updates, news & rumors, a heads up when discounts are released, and much more, sign up for our FREE email newsletter!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think? Is it possible or probable that Epic Universe will have the same “crowdpocalypse” concerns as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge…or is the lure of a whole new theme park so overwhelming that it’ll draw way more people than it scares away? Will you visit Epic Universe in Summer 2025, or will you wait for crowds to settle down (in theory)? Excited for Super Nintendo World, Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic, Dark Universe/Classic Monsters, or the How to Train Your Dragon lands and/or attractions? Think Epic Universe will be a third gate that’s a worthy addition to Universal Orlando Resort…and potentially on par with Disney’s best lands? Any questions? We love hearing from readers, so please share any other thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!




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