One of the most exciting projects in UK theme park history has reached the next stage of development as Universal Destinations and Experiences have begun public consultations on their potential upcoming theme park resort in Bedford. With the launch of the consultations, Universal have published a document detailing the project, and whilst there aren’t any hints as to what sort of attractions we could expect in a British Universal park, there is still plenty of new information.

The Proposal

Universal has previously confirmed that it was the purchaser of a 476-acre parcel of land south of Bedford, with the intention to begin feasibility studies for a full-scale theme park resort. In the consultation documents, the company details the reasoning behind their decision to build both in the UK and in Bedford itself. The UK’s existing strong affinity to Universal’s existing experiences is noted, with the company keen to bring these experiences to the country itself. The UK is also noted as offering a very attractive attractions market with a large population, creative industries, and strong tourism and public transportation. Bedford itself was chosen for its ideal links to nationwide public transportation, as well as the nearby London Luton airport and, of course, the capital itself.

The full extent of the project is shown in aerial maps, with a smaller parcel of land not yet purchased, but with the option secured, added to the 476 acre purchase. This additional parcel of land would allow improved transportation links to the resort, with a direct link to the A421 made possible.

Though Universal are keen to stress that no decision has yet been made as to what attractions and experiences we would be likely to see in a UK resort, the consultation documents do feature a proposed split of the site. The Indicative Master Plan shows a sizeable parcel of land dedicated to ‘Theme Park’ and ‘Theme Park Support’, with an adjacent ‘Hotel/Retail, Dining + Entertainment’ area. Next to this sits the ‘Transportation Hub’’ which directly connects to a ‘Rail Station’. A large proportion of the site is marked as remaining natural, with a sizable lake and adjacent ‘Restoration Area’. Between both the Phase 1 Indicative Master Plan and Indicative Master Plan it also appears as though the resort may begin with surface car parking, and progress to multi-story facilities as the resort grows, though it is noted elsewhere that there are no current plans for multi-level parking structures.

As well as a first look at the proposed usage of the land, the new document also offers our first hint at the expected timeframe for the project. When detailing the plan for managing construction traffic, Universal note that the infrastructure for construction would be in place ‘for the start of the Enabling Works towards the end of 2025’. This corresponds with previous rumours, reported by Theme Park Stop, that the project would be looking to begin construction shortly after the completion of Epic Universe. It is noted that the initial works to establish two road-based construction access routes needs to be ‘designed, procured and completed’ by early Q2 2027, when the main Facility Construction phase is intended to commence. Elsewhere it is noted that the expected duration of overall construction would be ‘around five to six years’. With the Facility Construction Phase anticipated to last until Q4 2029, with the two new rail stations also being constructed over a similar time period, this would point to an earliest possible opening date in 2030, as per the reported rumours.

Should Universal make the decision to move ahead with the development, it is acknowledged that planning consent would be required. Reference is made to the special development order (SDO) route, which would see planning permission granted directly by Government rather than the local authority. It is noted that whether this route is appropriate is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with the Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) having agreed to act as the sponsor for the project within Government. Universal have confirmed that any planning submission would be accompanied by an Environmental Statement, which will be publicised and subject to consultation with statutory consultation bodies and the public.

Local Impact

As a document primarily targeted towards local residents, much of the consultation information is focused on the impact on the local area. Of key concern to local residents, and to potential guests, will be the transportation implications. To ease the strain the resort will undoubtedly place on local connections, Universal will look to invest, alongside central Government, in the surrounding network. We have seen similar work in Orlando with the construction of new dedicated roads leading to Epic Universe. In Bedford, Universal would assist with the construction of Wixams railway station, a direct slip road to the resort from the A421 and a new railway station on the East West Rail line. Manor Road, the road passing through the centre of the development, would also see improvements. Between both Wixams and the East West Rail station, the resort would be served by two nearby stations located on either side of the land, between them these stations are projected to bring 35-40% of guests to the resort, with a further 35% utilising the improved road network and the planned 4,200 parking spaces.

The opportunity for employment will be directly beneficial to local people, with the resort expecting to offer 8,000 new jobs, rising to 20,000 by year 20 of operation. Alongside this, the peak construction workforce is expected to be 5,000. These roles would primarily be advertised to local residents, with 75% of the workforce expected to come from Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes.

Also highlighted by Universal is the company’s dedication to education. As shown in a case study of the Universal Orlando Resort, the company has a proven track record of partnering with local institutions to offer educational programmes for young people. Elsewhere, it is noted that Universal would be looking to partner with providers such as The Prince’s Trust and 4YP to offer this in the UK.

The Universal Experience

Across their entire proposal, Universal are keen to emphasise that this will be an experience that will stand alone in the UK market.

“Across the world we are focused on delivering a world-class experience for our guests, and we would want any resort in the UK to be among the best of its kind in the world.”

Between ‘beloved storytellers’ and ‘cutting-edge technology’, Universal would be looking to bring a whole new ‘fully immersive’ experience to the UK. Somewhere where ‘attractions, placemaking, food, merchandise and costumes’ all come together to offer a theme park experience beyond that currently on offer in the market.

Outside of the park, the guiding design principles of Universal parks will ensure that the exterior impact of resort is minimal, with an ‘open sky scheme’ incorporating both landscaping and architecture, designed to reduce the apparent bulk and mass and ensure light is reaching ground level. The skyline of Universal Islands of Adventure is presented as an example of their design principles in practice.

Of particular interest is the stated maximum height for the project, with an overall maximum height of any component being set at 115m (377ft) suggesting potential large-scale attractions or theming elements. Within this height limit, the highest occupiable floor of any building would be 75m (246ft).

Finally, Universal have emphasised that this will not be just a stand-alone theme park but a fully fledged resort, featuring its own CityWalk, as well as ‘a range of hotel and other accommodations.’ CityWalk is the shopping and dining district found at Universal resorts worldwide. Located outside of the theme park, the offerings in this area would not require an admission ticket but would still be highly themed experiences not in direct competition with anything else in the local area. Though less certain, other mixed-use development at the site is being considered including potential conference facilities, exhibition spaces, employment and sport uses. The masterplan indicates that this would be located on the northern part of the acquired site, on the land adjacent to the existing lakes.

Whilst there is still a very long way to go for the Universal UK project, and no final decision has yet been made, this latest phase marks an exciting milestone. Local residents can engage with the feasibility work until Friday 3rd May, with public events occurring on Saturday 13th and Tuesday 16th April – full details can be found on the project’s dedicated website.

Are you as excited about Universal UK as we are? What would you like to see come to the potential resort? Let us know across our social media channels!
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