Redevelopment of Universal Orlando's Wet 'n Wild property has the potential to redefine North International Drive, with enough acreage on related land parcels to build two convention center-sized hotels, or a major hospitality-and-attraction combo, sources in local real estate, architecture and theme park design tell GrowthSpotter.
"The highest and best use of property at that location can almost be whatever they imagine. The fact it's been a water park all these years definitely isn't the best use anymore," said Steve Baker, a veteran theme park consultant and president of the Baker Group, part of Orlando-based ITEC Entertainment.
"Let's say they do 1 million visitors a year (to Wet 'n Wild), and most spend $35. That's $35 million in gross sales, which I think is a good estimate," he continued. "That property is paid off, so I'll estimate they're banking $10 million of that. It's good for a water park, but with a major hotel you'll get the best profit potential out of that acreage."
Universal announced Wednesday its Wet 'n Wild water park will close at the end of 2016, timed just months before the likely opening of the company's new water park, Volcano Bay, some time in 2017. The company declined to comment on rumors for future use of the property.
With a fifth Universal hotel opening next year in Sapphire Falls, Universal will have 5,200 hotel rooms locally in 2016. Parent company Comcast Corp. has said it would like to triple that figure to meet projected demand, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel.
Universal acquired eight parcels in June 2013 for Wet 'N Wild, at a cost of nearly $31 million. The main parcel for the water park at the corner of I-Drive and Universal Boulevard occupies 23.65 acres.
Four contiguous parcels on Universal Boulevard directly east of the water park, which currently house surface parking and administrative offices, total 22.73 acres. Other individual parcels acquired are a bit removed from the park's land concentration.
With roughly 46 acres to work with at the intersection, Universal could build two new, neighboring hotels with 1,500 or more rooms each, similar to the Hilton Orlando or Hyatt Regency hotels that anchor the Orange County Convention Center. Less acreage is being pegged for a new anchor hotel near OCCC, as GrowthSpotter reported May 29.
"On 20-plus acres, you could probably get 1,500 to 2,000 rooms on each of those properties," said Eric Antalek, associate principal at HKS Architects in Orlando.
Aerial bridges could connect neighboring properties over Universal Boulevard, similar to how Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas connects two towers via bridge at its VIP suite level, Antalek said.
But the width of the property's right of way could complicate any bridges over a busy boulevard, and structurally complex designs can reduce a hotel project's return on investment, he added.
While new resort hotels for Universal come to mind first, the success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is proof that innovative attractions built around high-profile intellectual properties can draw new visitors in droves.
It opens the possibility that Universal's next hot intellectual property, be it a movie franchise or superhero series, could support an attraction built on the Wet 'n Wild property, along with a hotel that offers unique access to it, said Bob Mctyre, president of California-based Apogee Attractions, a design and management consulting firm for theme parks.
"With that said, it's not ideal because you lose that 'magic resort' feel when the property is split by a public street," he said. "Forty-six acres also isn't a lot to work with for an extensive park. But if you had the right intellectual property, you may be able to do something special."
Alan Helman, founding partner for Orlando-based architectural firm HHCP, would like to see Universal Orlando build vertically on the property, helping push North I-Drive in the coming years toward a New York City landscape with mixed-use high-rises, like the Skyplex entertainment complex he's helped design.
"I don't see why that trend couldn't continue on this property with a mixed-use tower that's taller than the Skyplex (currently designed to stand 580 feet above street level)," Helman said.
Abdul Mathin, chairman/CEO of The BlackMINE Group and developer of the iSquare Mall + Hotel planned for the corner of I-Drive and Kirkman Road, welcomes more large hotels on North I-Drive, and thinks the Wet 'n Wild redevelopment would prompt that.
"All the decades-old lodging on North I-Drive needs to go, and this type of major site redevelopment will encourage many property owners to follow suit and completely rebuild," he said.
The more high-profile hotel projects that come to occupy North I-Drive, the more rate support will be built in that area for higher ADRs, which are suppressed now by mid- and lower-tier hotels, said Paul Sexton, vice president at HREC Investment Advisors.
"The Wet 'n Wild property is arguably the largest available for redevelopment on North I-Drive," he said, "so whatever they do is going to be something that defines the neighborhood, and that can only be a good thing for property owners."