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Universal Orlando Resort Bets Big on IP in the Summer Ahead of Epic Universe

Universal Orlando Resort Bets Big on IP in the Summer Ahead of Epic Universe

Before construction began on DreamWorks Land, the newest addition to Universal Studios Florida, Dean Orion found himself on a typical walk around the grounds of the Florida theme park. As he approached what was then known as the KidsZone — the park’s earliest strategy for catering to their youngest guests with classic IP attractions like Fievel’s Playland, Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster and Curious George Goes to Town — the sound of a child shouting caught his attention.

Around a marquee tied to a DreamWorks meet-and-greet, a young girl around 10 years old was begging her mother to get a picture in front of a poster of Shrek. “People grew up with Shrek when they were kids. Now they’re having their own families, and what do they do? They sit down and watch the movie that they loved as a kid with their kid,” the creative director, Universal Creative, Universal Orlando Resort, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “With a 20-year-old franchise, there’s also always talk about are people going to relate to this, but Shrek is like DreamWorks’ Mickey Mouse, right?” 

A rendering of Shrek in DreamWorks Land.

While they might not be as iconic as the green ogre, Orion also points to Trolls and Kung Fu Panda — both with themed villages in DreamWorks Land  — as similarly notable film franchises that have left an indelible mark on pop culture. Both brands have turned single successful features into big screen franchises, garnering an aggressive catalog of merchandise and their own TV spin-offs. Their newest big screen installments, along with a Shrek spin-off, have all been released in recent succession: Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022), Trolls Band Together (2023) and Kung Fu Panda 4 (2024). (The Oscar-nominated Last Wish arrived just a year before Universal was crowned the highest-grossing movie studio, taking the title from Disney for the first time since 2015 with the help of the billion-dollar box office of Illumination’s Super Mario Bros. Movie.)

“Enduring is really a great word because these characters are just so beloved,” says Orion while discussing why these franchises were selected to head-up the new land for what will likely be several decades. “One of the things that is so powerful about the DreamWorks brand is that they are everyman characters, Shrek, Po, Poppy, Branch. They’re all these lovable, relatable, big-hearted characters that are larger than life, but in a very human way. Then there’s the sort of irreverent humor.” 

Like with the creation of Illumination’s Minion Land — its meet and greet Illumination Theater and family-friend rides like Minions at Villain-Con opening less than a year ago in the former home of Shrek 4-D — DreamWorks Land’s team spent several years working to capture the spirit behind the studio’s stories in a dynamic way that’s at once intergenerational and specifically for families with children ages three to 10. “Dean and the creative team at Universal Orlando Resort absolutely nailed it with the creation of DreamWorks Land,” says Michael Vollman, executive vice president of marketing at DreamWorks Animation. “Each distinct area truly feels like you’re walking right into those films.” 

When it officially opens to the public on June 14, guests can visit Shrek’s Swamp for Little Ogres, an immersive space featuring a 39-foot high cottage, a meet and greet with the titular character, Fiona, and Donkey, a (farting) outhouse slide, an animatronic Pinocchio, splash pads, and suspension bridges. A call to Shrek the Third’s comically long King Harold death sequence, which is capped off with a rendition of Guns N’ Roses’ “Live or Let Die,” the Swamp Symphony features a recreation of Fiona’s father’s mausoleum, around which young guests can interact with lily pads that activate musical frogs. “That’s our DreamWorks wink,” says Orion. “The kids are actually dancing on King Harold’s grave.” 

At Trolls village, the Trollercoaster’s caterpillar Caterbus takes riders and their favorite trolls (Poppy, Tiny and twins Satin and Chenille) on the run from evil spiders. The Kung Fu Panda section serves as a return to the animated universe for Orion, who worked on the films before joining the Universal Creative team to build Kung Fu Panda Land in Beijing. “That was quite a thing to build a theme park through a pandemic and in China,” he says. “It was definitely a great lesson in theme park construction that I took a lot from to come here.” 

In the area, guests practice their fighting skills at Po’s Kung Fu Training Camp, a wet and dry play area. Like several other IP-inspired attractions at the park that feature the on-screen talent from their films (think The Mummy and Wizarding World), this experience features around 80 different lines voiced by Mr. Ping’s James Hong. Many of the original KidsZone attractions had been with the park almost since its opening over 30 years ago.

DreamWorks Land, Orion says, was built with the same longevity in mind. So while “villages” largely focus on longer-established film franchises, Orion built a meet-and-greet space where, presently, Gabby from DreamWorks Animation TV’s hit preschool series Gabby’s Dollhouse will appear for her young fans. 

“There are a lot of people at DreamWorks and Universal that are very excited about Gabby’s Dollhouse and the success that show has had, but you can’t just drop Gabby into the middle of Trolls,” Orion says. “We worked a lot with our entertainment partners and arrived at what we call a flex stage, right behind the marquee, where we could have different DreamWorks characters. If at a certain point down the road a whole new franchise emerges that is really successful, they can change out the backdrops and put a whole new IP in there.” 

The land is also home to the new DreamWorks Imagination Celebration live show, which includes 360-degree media, animated performers, dancers, singers, and puppets, and takes over for the once-popular (and non-Universal IP) A Day in the Park with Barney. Calling up the cloudy imagery found in DreamWorks’ logo and curtain raiser (which got its own update in 2022), this story follows two friends who return to the spot where they met as kids, re-engaging their imaginations as they cloud gaze at a number of DreamWorks characters. 

“It’s a 20-minute, I would say, Broadway-level experience where kids are going to be able to sing, dance and, along with their adults, recapture their imagination,” says Mike Aiello, senior director, Entertainment Creative Development, Universal Orlando Resort. Aiello and his team were charged with revamping several of the park’s other entertainment experiences to open this summer. “In 2025 we are going to be opening Epic Universe,” he tells THR. “The opportunity we want to provide in 2024 is that we allow our present day brands to exist, allow a sprinkling of the brands that will exist in 2025, and at the same time, revisit some of the brands that were a part of the universal experience in major ways.” 

A rendering of Hogwarts Always at Universal Islands of Adventure.

This June the fourth Hogwarts Castle nighttime show will debut, a divergence from their Christmas and Halloween projections, as well as the original sorting hat storyline that launched with the parks in Orlando and Los Angeles. The newest seven-minute projection is an answer to whether the entertainment team could successfully tap into “a more expansive breadth of the entirety of the [Harry Potter] IP,” Aiello says. Featuring a new arrangement of the films’ existing compositions and recorded at Abbey Road with the London Symphony Orchestra, Hogwarts Always is a 4K experience on the castle exterior.

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The story itself will go beyond the journeys of Harry and his friends, referencing popular narrative touchstones and existing elements of the Wizarding World. That includes an acceptance letter and Kings Cross train ride; a trip to Diagon Alley and adventure in the Forbidden Forest; a Quidditch match between Gryffindor and Slytherin; the Marauders Map; three courses, including Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts; and Dumbeldore’s announcement of the House Cup winner, complete with four different endings. It’s all part of the park’s growing approach to making fans feel more personally immersed within the magical universe.

“This is the great thing about immersive entertainment,” says Orion. “You can actually create this feeling like you stepped into the movie, that you’ve transcended that fourth wall.” 

CineSational: A Symphonic Spectacular will serve as the park’s newest lagoon show, replacing the Cinematic Celebration that opened in 2018. Going bigger than its predecessor, the 22-minute presentation features 228 fountains and 1600 individual fountain nozzles that create a “beautiful, moving colorful palette that offers a lot of energy,” says Aiello.

Additionally, approximately 660 drones will be divided between “full blown” sculptures in the sky and lighting elements that will be “fairly up close and personal” to bystanders. CineSational is broken into thematic sections like action and adventure, heart and friendship, danger and peril, and will feature the musical themes from each property. Jurassic World, The Mummy, Fast and Furious, Shrek, and Trolls will all make appearances alongside nods to Epic Universe properties How to Train Your Dragon, Super Mario Bros., and Universal Monsters. 

In the Mega Movie Parade, 13 brand new floats allow the resort and theme park to “be more broad with the IP selection,” celebrating classic popular titles like Jaws, Back to the Future and E.T. The Ghostbusters float is 36 feet tall and features a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, while Jurassic Park will feature a T-Rex recreation that literally roars. Back to the Future will showcase the DeLorean time machine, Doc and Marty with live performers portraying Elliot, his brother and friends flying over treetops alongside E.T.’s ship. “Someone that’s older, they see Back to the Future rolling down the street, but right behind it is Minions through time, resolving in a ‘70s disco,” he says, noting that the music here will be more “energized” than the lagoon show. “We’re really trying to provide something for the whole family.” 

A pivot from the children-oriented animation-driven Superstar Parade, which featured a mix of owned and loaned kids IP like Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, Minions and Pets, the new event seeks to continue Universal Destinations & Experiences history of bridging the generational entertainment divide. But now it’s almost explicitly through Universal’s owned IP, with a few notable exceptions. 

The entire summer slate provides a peek into Universal Destinations & Experiences overall strategy, which is increasingly about embracing more of the studio’s past, present and future as it continues to revamp elements of its California and Florida parks, expand in Orlando and into Las Vegas and Texas. 

“This is probably the most content we’ve ever produced,” Aiello says. “Having all of these amazing touchstones of all the great things that we’ve offered over the decades that have been in existence at these parks is really satisfying and, frankly, something we don’t do a lot. We’ve never really commented on our history. We’ve never been the park to go, ‘We have this legacy.’ But I believe now more than ever, we can and we deserve it.’”

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