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Universal would have zoning for attraction, hotels on Colony properties

Universal Orlando land buy would include zoning favoring tourism development

If Universal Orlando becomes the new owner of 474 acres near the Orange County Convention Center, it would inherit much of the zoning and entitlements needed to build an attraction, thousands of hotel units and structures up to 400 feet high.

The purchase would vastly expand the theme park's empire, possibly paving the way for a third theme park and more hotels.

Three Orange County commissioners and sources with knowledge of the deal have said Universal has a contract on the properties. The land is owned by California-based Colony Capital.

Universal, which has repeatedly declined to comment on potential interest in the property, has complained that it has been left out of the creation of a county-directed vision for the International Drive tourism corridor.

"They expressed frustration that they didn't have more input into the visioning process for I-Drive, that they are a major investor in the area and that they're adding to that investment with the acquisition of this property," Commissioner Ted Edwards said.

Universal has announced ambitious plans for its Orlando attractions. Under owner Comcast Corp., which acquired it a few years ago, its theme parks have received a huge dose of capital investment.

Universal is adding amenities such as a water park and an airport shuttle service similar to its chief rival Walt Disney World, all meant to get visitors to spend more time and money.

"I think that the purchase of additional acreage near their existing property falls in line with their goals of becoming a destination property similar to Disney," said Scott Smith, assistant hospitality professor at the University of South Carolina.

Ever since Universal Parks and Resorts announced a partnership with Nintendo, rumors have been swirling of a third Orlando theme park based on video games.

"The next park has to be a newer property aimed at the next generation of theme-park goers," said Jim Hill, industry blogger and editor of JimHillMedia.com. "All the signs point to Nintendo."

"Disney is still going to be the top dog, but just what we've seen is the incremental market share that's steadily been sliding over to Universal over the past five to 10 years," Hill said. "If I were Legoland or SeaWorld, I'd be terrified."

Currently, though, Universal has little property to work with. Its resort is landlocked. Its Wet 'n Wild water park will close next year, creating some redevelopment opportunity.

The Colony properties would put Universal in the unusual situation of having its theme-park properties spread out, with other attractions and hotels in between.

'It's just a different kind of model," said Duncan Dickson, associate professor at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

I-Drive hotel manager David Vallillo said he and many other local businesses want to see more attractions near the convention center.

"Orlando has clearly fallen behind some of our convention competitors, and a closer theme park could give us more to offer. Our convention customers have told us that walkability is important to them. They want to be able to walk to something fun to do after a meeting," Vallillo said.

"Just the distance alone would lead you to believe it would be a stand-alone park," Vallillo said. "We see this situation as similar to Disney's Animal Kingdom, which is separate from the other Disney parks and accessible only by traditional ground transportation."

Universal owned the property years ago. Lockheed Martin sold about 2,000 acres in 1998 — and there had been speculation that the company would use the acreage it bought for a third theme park. Then-owner Universal Vivendi sold the land as part of an ongoing plan to cut costs and raise cash amid an industrywide slump.

The property now includes more than a dozen parcels, the largest of which is 340 acres just southeast of Lockheed Martin's Missiles and Fire Control Plant. That acreage already has zoning for an attraction. Other parts of the property, nearly all of it east of Universal Boulevard, are approved for up to 5,000 residential units, 3,000 hotel units and theme park-style attractions.

"Everything basically is negotiated," said county planner Alberto Vargas.

A future owner could still make major changes that would require commission approval, Vargas said, but "we just need to make sure that any type of associated development is engaged into the future vision" that the county is preparing for International Drive.

The property went through environmental cleanup that lasted years. A subsequent owner, Stan Thomas of Georgia, fell into foreclosure during the Great Recession. The new interest from Universal comes as Colony just acquired the property from Thomas' company in a foreclosure.

Last summer, Thomas' companies filed for extensions on water-district permitting for grading and drainage. They also filed a planned-development amendment with Orange County to ensure that the entitlements remained with the property.

Some of the remaining acreage in the complex is directly across Universal Boulevard from the Orange County Convention Center.

Kathie Canning, the convention center's executive director, said retail and entertainment would be more helpful for the center than a theme park, she said.

"A theme park would not necessarily complement the convention-center business, except perhaps the after-hour events," she said. "Most convention planners want their people to come to the meetings during the day."

spedicini@tribpub.com or 407-420-5240; pbrinkmann@tribpub.com or 407-420-5660

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