New details have been unveiled for Universal’s first UK theme park – including plans for the attraction to be open 365 days a year.

Universal Destinations & Experiences – which is owned by Sky’s parent company Comcast – has bought land near Bedford as it plans to build Europe’s largest theme park with more than 20 million visitors per year, as well as a 500-room hotel and dining area.

Economic benefits

Universal’s economic impact analysis, produced in line with HM Treasury guidelines on economic appraisal and published today suggests the attraction will generate nearly £50bn of economic benefits for the UK.

It said the net economic contribution of the potential project for the UK was forecast to be £35.1bn over the construction period and first 20 years of operation.

Up to a further £14.1bn was expected to be generated in extra taxes for the exchequer over the same period.

The analysis suggests the project will generate 20,000 jobs during the construction period which, at its peak, will see 5,000 workers on the site.

Once operational, it is expected to create an initial 8,000 new jobs, rising over time. The company has made a commitment to pay the living wage to employees.

‘The best location we’ve ever seen’

Universal has acquired almost 500 acres for the site, which is just south of Bedford between Kempston, Wootton, Stewartby and Wixams, with an option to buy up to a further 200 acres.

A map showing the land Universal has purchased

The new park, which would have a construction period of around six years, would be built on land once occupied by Kempston Hardwick brickworks, once the world’s largest brickworks in terms of output, which closed in 2008 and which was demolished in September 2021.

“I can tell you it’s going to be a world-class park with all experiences that people will love based upon the most popular films, video games and stories that people have enjoyed for decades,” said Page Thompson, the company’s president in charge of new ventures.

“We’ve spent the last decade looking all over Europe and the United Kingdom for locations, and we think this is the best location we’ve ever seen.”

Universal Destinations & Experiences currently has five theme parks around the world – in the United States, Japan, China and Singapore.

Disneyland Paris, which with the associated Walt Disney Studios Park is currently Europe’s biggest theme park, attracts around 15 million visitors per year.

New details

“Our phase one plans consist of a theme park, a 500-room hotel and a dining area that people can come to even if they don’t have a theme park ticket,” Mr Thompson told Sky News.

The proposed park would be built on the site of a former brickworks.
The proposed park would be built on the site of a former brickworks.

“Over time, I would expect the number of hotels to grow.

“Our intention is that this park would be open 365 days a year, just like all of our other major theme parks.

“We have a whole series of special events, like our Halloween Horror Nights and carnival parties… and it just allows us to attract people throughout this time.”

Universal said evidence from its other theme parks suggested that for every job supported within the parks at least 1.5 further jobs could be supported in the supply chain and neighbouring parts of the economy – leading to its expectation of a net additional 20,000 jobs.

Plenty of competition

The investment is not without risks and not least because of its scale.

Of Europe’s 20 most visited theme parks, four – Legoland Windsor, Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park – are in the UK, all owned by the former FTSE-100 giant Merlin Entertainments. Their combined visitor numbers annually come to around half of what Universal is targeting.

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There is also plenty of competition.

Locally, not far from the proposed Bedfordshire site is the Harry Potter Experience at the Warner Bros studio tour near Watford, while there is Woburn Safari Park to the immediate north and Whipsnade Zoo to the immediate west of Luton.

There is no shortage of quality options for family days out. Further afield Europe already has more than 1,000 theme and amusement parks, many of them owned by Merlin, renowned for its astute management.

The weather issue

A third factor, potentially, is the weather. This is something that already handicaps a lot of theme parks in northern Europe, such as Liseberg in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, the Tivoli Gardens in the Danish capital Copenhagen and the original Legoland, in the Danish city of Billund, which close for some or all of the winter. So does Phantasialand, one of Germany’s biggest and most popular attractions.

Universal Destinations & Experiences, however, is thought to be undeterred by the English weather and points to the fact that the weather is not always perfect in other parts of the world in which it operates, most notably China and Japan.

Tourists stop by the iconic sculpture of the Universal Studios theme park in Beijing, China Tuesday, Sept. 07, 2021. Pic: AP
Tourists stop by the iconic sculpture of the Universal Studios theme park in Beijing, China. Pic: AP

The Paris experience

The company also appears undeterred by the experience of Disney in Paris.

The original Euro Disney was loss-making for many years – partly due to mismanagement and partly due to a misunderstanding of what European and particularly French consumers were looking for – and it has only really been since it was fully consumed by the Walt Disney Company, in 2017, that it has been effectively run.

Transport challenges

Another big risk is the transport links. Universal Destinations & Experiences – the name was changed last year from Universal Parks & Resorts to better reflect the kind of services customers will be offered in future in both the physical and virtual worlds – has selected the site primarily for its rail and road links to London and, with one in three visitors expected to come from overseas, for its proximity to Luton Airport.

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Yet those links are not currently up to handling the kind of visitor numbers Universal Destinations & Experiences is expecting.

The M1, the main road link to London, is frequently congested around the Luton turn-off at junction 10 and the road links from there to the site in need of improvement.

Accordingly, Universal Destinations & Experiences will be seeking government incentives to invest in local road and rail links.

Support could also come from East West Rail, the proposed new main line railway connecting East Anglia and South Wales, the first phase of which is a line between Oxford and Cambridge and for which a new station at Kempston Hardwick – whose existing station backs onto the land the park would operate – has been proposed.

The planning process

Riskiest of all, perhaps, is the planning process. Local businesses and MPs are supportive while both Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor and Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, have been briefed on the project. Planning proposals have been submitted and Universal Destinations & Experiences has held talks with Bedford Borough and Central Bedfordshire Councils.

However, Mr Thompson confirmed that Universal Destinations & Experiences is seeking planning permission via a so-called special development order – which would take the decision out of the hands of the local authorities and instead leave the final decision on planning consent with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

A roll of the dice

So this is a big roll of the dice by Universal Destinations & Experiences.

The investment – the first phase of which will be several billion pounds – will take many years to pay off while thrill-seekers should probably not expect the resort to be up and running much before the end of the decade.

However, starting with a blank sheet of paper as it opens its first European venue, Universal Destinations & Experiences has the opportunity to bring something genuinely new not just to the UK but to Europe.

The name change made by the business last year reflects the fact that, in future, the business expects to be offering branded entertainment, culinary, gaming and consumer product experiences that go a lot further than the traditional theme park and resort offerings.

There could even be experiences at the resort which have yet to be conceived. It could be quite the ride.