Friday, December 11, 2015

The next big move in Orlando's tourist district might not be what you think it is

Posted By on Fri, Dec 11, 2015 at 6:07 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO VIA CPRE
  • Photo via CPRE
At last week’s Skyplex approval meeting, another bombshell was dropped by the Skyplex team. The property just south of Skyplex that recently went up for auction is being eyed by Universal Studios. At least two county commissioners have also confirmed that Universal has the property under contract. While Universal hasn’t confirmed their interest in the property, this hasn’t stopped many from speculating what Universal plans to use the property for. The property is collectively known as the Colony property, named after its current owner.

Before we get into the possibilities of what the property could become, a quick background might help. The property was owned by Lockheed for some time and used as a missile testing area; causing a brownfield designation for the property with a cleanup that just recently finished. Oddly enough, Universal used to own the property but sold it when its parent company at the time, Vivendi, fell upon hard times. A group of investors out of Georgia bought it with big plans. The property has some unique zoning already that does include ‘amusement parks’ and hotel-use zoning. This is due to a very ambitious proposal for the property from those Georgia investors. The proposal at that time did include some other nearby properties that has now been developed outside of the current property for sale. The plan did include a water taxi system very similar to the ones currently being used at Universal Orlando. Horse riding trails, golf courses and other unique features were included in that original plan, as well.

All of this fell through when the recession hit and the property has sat empty with an unknown future ever since.

The property now in question isn’t a single block but instead a large tract with smaller ones spread throughout the area along Universal Blvd between the Beachline and Sand Lake Road. One of those smaller tracts, a 19-acre plot to the east of I-Drive 360 near Sand Lake Road, is included in the zoning change proposal that Unicorp is presenting to the Board of Commissioners on Dec. 15. Unicorp, the developers behind I-Drive 360 and both local Trader Joe’s plazas, have said they would like to develop at least two large hotels and a waterfront “Bellagio-style” retail and entertainment complex that would include a fountain show in the shadow of the Eye. At this time Unicorp, is the only group to publically express interest in the property.

Now, if Universal does get the property, many have pointed to the amusement park zoning as proof of a new park being developed. While this may be the longer term plans of Volcano Bay opening in 2017 and expansions planned at the two already open parks, yet another new gate does seem like overkill for the time being. With that mind some, like Richard Bilbao at the Orlando Business Journal, have pointed to the new property as a potential ‘backstage’ area that may include offices, storage and other backstage uses.

NBC Universal has expressed interests in adding over 10,000 more hotel rooms in Orlando. While the property, if Universal does receive it, will likely include some type of hotel uses, the feasibility of transporting those guests between the two Universal resorts will be a concern. Popular amusement industry expert Jim Hill has said before that there was already concern within NBC Universal over transporting guests to Wet n’ Wild due to the public roads the shuttle buses were on. If there is concern there then this property, which is much further away would, only magnify those concerns.

Another possibility of the property would be a complex that isn’t branded as part of Universal Orlando, but instead would be a mixed use development focused on the convention center and its business travelers. Conventions have proven successful to Universal with a new 1,000 room convention hotel now being constructed. The meeting spaces in the pre-existing and the new hotels are limited though, meaning Universal is missing out on the largest (and usually, in turn, the most profitable) conventions. Some rumors of a ‘Vegas like’ convention hotel have been swirling around regarding the Wet n’ Wild property, but even that property is a bit away from the convention district. The new property, if bought by Universal, will likely include some type of convention space.

The properties near the tracts in question do include uses like multi-family residential, retail and educational. The Colony property is zoned for mixed use with residential units. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that NBC Universal is looking to invest in a large scale planned community on the property. A number of apartment communities have popped up in the area over the past few years, many with higher than average occupancy rates. Residential and hotel may prove to be the most profitable uses of the land.

It’s no secret that amusement parks are typically less of a profit driver than hotels and other resort amenities. With two major theme parks and a one-of-a-kind water thrill park on the way, Universal would appear to have its hands full with parks right now.

Whoever buys it and whatever the plans for it are, we should know more during the Unicorp presentation on Dec. 15.

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