Universal Orlando’s growth spurt is way more than Harry Potter

When you hear the words expansion and Universal Orlando, you immediately think of the highly anticipated build-out of Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Which is right on the money. This summer, when it opens, it will give fans of the bespectacled boy wizard essentially twice as much room to play.

But, there’s more to the park’s planned growth than witches and wands. This year, in addition to opening Diagon Alley, Universal Orlando will also put the finishing touches on a slew of new CityWalk restaurants and an 1,800-room hotel.

Theme park experts say these projects are a big deal, as it competes with Disney and the other big Orlando theme parks.

“According to NBCUniversal’s latest financial statements, the company’s capital expenditure on theme parks has nearly doubled in the nine months to Sept. 30,” says James Crompton, an analyst with market research firm IBISWorld.

And the momentum isn’t expected to stop anytime soon. This spring, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort -- the first hotel to open on the park’s property since 2002 -- will open its doors as the largest Universal hotel yet. Taking its cue from the seaside motels of yesteryear, rooms will sport a stylish, vintage feel (think Miami Beach circa 1960) with bold design features, bright colors and a cool retro vibe.

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“Our guests have told us that they want the ability to choose between a value-priced experience and the higher level of benefits available at our other full-service hotels,” says Russ Dagon, vice president and executive project director for Universal Creative.

Cabana Bay will offer standard rooms starting at $119 and family suites, which include a kitchenette and room to sleep six, starting at $174. By March 31, 600 of its planned 1,800 rooms will open.

Adults will appreciate the cabanas, pool bar and fitness studio. Kids will love the multiple pools, 10-lane bowling alley, water slide and lazy river (a first for Universal). The best part, of course, is the location. Cabana Bay is within walking distance of both Universal theme parks. Plus, hotel guests score early park admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, though they may be bummed about not getting complimentary front-of-the-line ride passes that the three other Universal hotels offer.

“It is all about capturing as much of the guests’ time as you can,” says Duncan Dickson, who teaches theme-park management at the University of Central Florida. “Basically they are trying to increase their capture rate and make Universal more than a one-day visit during ‘my Disney vacation,’” he says.

More food options

Throughout the year, eight new dining options will debut at CityWalk, an entertainment complex that serves as the entrance to the parks. The eatery with perhaps the most unusual concept is The Cowfish Sushi and Burger Bar, where burger and sushi components join forces in a concept called burgsushi.

Here, guests will be able to order smash-ups like a beef roll with cheese and pesto or the bento box with a mini burger and half a sushi roll, edamame and sweet potato fries. Equally interesting, the Hot Dog Hall of Fame will feature iconic hot dogs of all sorts.

Other restaurants scheduled to open include Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food, a unique tapas-style restaurant; Bread Box, a home-style sandwich shop; Red Oven Pizza Bakery (which is now open); Cold Stone Creamery; Menchies and a modern Italian kitchen concept where guests watch pasta being prepared from scratch.

Starbucks will also have a new home on the first level and will more than double in size.

The Universal Studios Store (where you can buy Hedwig puppets and Transformers cups) will get a revamp. too.

Universal Orlando “is simply expanding to keep competitive with Walt Disney World, and by increasing CityWalk with more restaurants and activities it will continue this trend,” says Pete Trabucco, author of America’s Top Roller Coasters and Amusement Parks. “They know full well that Disney Springs, which will be expanding Downtown Disney, will be looking to move Universal’s business their way.”

Potter Mania continues

The most anticipated piece of the expansion, Diagon Alley, will open this summer. Once inside the newly themed area, guests will feel like they’ve stepped onto the London film set, complete with the popular wizarding pub The Leaky Cauldron. It will also feature shops and a star attraction based on Gringotts, the creepy, goblin-run bank from the series.

Afterward, guests can easily hop over to Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure via the Hogwarts Express, which will connect the two parks. (Note: You will need a two-park pass to be able to do this.) Rumor has it that high-tech features on the train could include “windows” that give the illusion of traveling from one destination to the other. While that remains to be seen, what we can be certain of is that Potterheads from around the globe will be flocking to it this summer.

Harry Potter attractions provide an excellent means to compete against companies like Disney, who also have an extensive backlog of intellectual property that can be monetized via theme parks,” says Crompton. “Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars certainly provides a competitive boost to the company. In order to compete with Star Wars, Universal must capitalize on its own intellectual property.”

“The Harry Potter draw is still incredible,” says Dickson. “By adding another attraction for this audience you will see an increase in tourism to Orlando, just like you did when Hogsmeade opened. If the Universal Creative team can build another attraction as unique and exciting as Forbidden Journey, they will have a winner.”