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Originally published April 8, 2014 at 1:43 PM | Page modified April 9, 2014 at 4:28 PM

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Massive makeover coming to Universal Studios Hollywood

$1.6 billion overhaul of the park (and movie studio) is designed to keep and please thrill-ride fans and lure back families with young children.

The New York Times


UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Now Comcast is mouse hunting on both coasts.

After pouring money into its Universal Resort in Orlando, Fla., Comcast is increasing spending at Universal Studios Hollywood, unveiling a smattering of new attractions on Tuesday that — when combined with previously announced sections devoted to Harry Potter and “Despicable Me” — will leave 70 percent of the California park remade by 2016.

The enhancements, part of a $1.6 billion overhaul of the park and adjacent movie studio, are designed to keep Universal’s thrill-ride fans coming back but also to attract families with young children, a lucrative audience that Universal until recently left almost entirely to nearby Disneyland.

“We’re trying to significantly broaden our base,” said Larry Kurzweil, president of Universal Studios Hollywood, which drew roughly 6 million visitors last year. “This isn’t about adding rides. It’s about a complete transformation.”

He may not be exaggerating. When Universal Orlando opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter four years ago, that resort went from an also-ran to a must-visit almost overnight. Year-on-year attendance shot up 30 percent as families swarmed the snow-capped shops of Hogsmeade and rode three Potter-themed rides.

To prepare for a similar surge in California — a Wizarding World will open at this hilltop park in 2016 — Comcast’s NBCUniversal is adding thousands of parking spaces, spending about $100 million to improve transit and planning two 500-room hotels. But those efforts are crumbs compared to what is planned inside the gates.

On Saturday a “Despicable Me” attraction called Minion Mayhem will begin transforming riders into furry yellow Minions and taking them on a topsy-turvy excursion. Also opening is a water-themed play area called Super Silly Fun Land, a version of the seaside carnival from “Despicable Me.”

“That is our first real kiddie ride,” Kurzweil said during a pre-opening tour, pointing to a contraption called Silly Swirly, a new brightly colored offering similar to Disney’s flying Dumbo attraction, except with exotic bugs instead of elephants. “I rode it earlier myself,” he added with a smile.

The park, which will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary, said that it would also expand its “Simpsons” ride to include an entire themed village. The area, similar to one at Universal Orlando but more expansive, will add about a dozen restaurants and shops to the center of the park and open next year.

Also coming next year, the company said Tuesday, will be “Fast & Furious — Supercharged,” a movie-thrill ride hybrid in which occupants of Universal’s famed back-lot trams will be encircled by 400-foot-long movie screens. “We’re going to make it feel like those trams are being pulled through the streets at speeds of over 100 miles per hour,” said Chick Russell, an executive producer for Universal Creative.

Universal’s tram tours, which currently end at sunset, will be expanded into the evening hours. There are plans for a new nighttime story line, which will be accompanied by lighting effects at more than 20 stops.

To some degree, the remaking of Universal Studios Hollywood is less about stealing market share from Disney than catching up after years of semi-neglect. Universal’s California outpost has occasionally added new attractions, including a “Transformers” ride in 2012 and a “King Kong” experience in 2010. But Universal’s various recent owners — General Electric, Vivendi, Seagram — were all more interested in wringing cash from the theme parks than putting any in.

In contrast, the Walt Disney Co. was investing heavily in its two-park Disneyland Resort 35 miles to the south in Anaheim, Calif. Disney recently spent $1 billion to expand its California Adventure park there, for instance.

Comcast has discovered — to its surprise — that theme parks represent one of the few areas of stable entertainment industry growth outside of cable television. Universal parks had operating income of about $1 billion last year, up 5.3 percent from a year earlier, according to financial filings. Revenue increased 7.2 percent.

Stephen B. Burke, a Comcast executive vice president and chief executive of the NBCUniversal unit, declined an interview request. In an emailed statement, he said in part, “Going forward, we plan to keep investing.”

Burke, who spent over a decade at Disney, working for a time as a senior parks manager, added, “Our parks are well-run and firing on all cylinders.”

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